Books

BORN TO BLOOM UNSEEN

In two novels by Canadian women, female protagonists struggle in obscurity

SUE FERGUSON December 2 2002
Books

BORN TO BLOOM UNSEEN

In two novels by Canadian women, female protagonists struggle in obscurity

SUE FERGUSON December 2 2002

BORN TO BLOOM UNSEEN

Books

SUE FERGUSON

In two novels by Canadian women, female protagonists struggle in obscurity

THEY ARE TWO historical novels written by Canadian women. Both are set in foreign lands amid politically charged times. Both stories are told by not-very-pretty young women who, abandoned by their mothers at an early age, struggle to come to terms with feelings of longing and loss. But despite the similarities, publisher HarperCollins is not reverting to formula. Helen Humphreys’ The Lost Garden and Nancy Richler’s Your Mouth Is Lovely are very distinct tales with disparate appeal.

The Lost Garden, by Kingston, Ont., poet and novelist Helen Humphreys, centres on Gwen Davis, a prudish horticulturist who has displaced human intimacy with a passion for gardening and the fiction of Virginia Woolf. Although her mother has recently died, in reality she’d left Gwen long ago. As German bombs leave her beloved London in ruins, she accepts a post on a dilapidated Devon estate overseeing a contingent of the Land Girls charged with planting potatoes. The friendships she develops—one with a Canadian officer also stationed on the estate who’s awaiting transfer to the front, the other with a Land Girl whose fiancé is missing in action—embolden her to chip away at the walls of self-protection she has spent years constructing. At the same time, she discovers a hidden garden on the property and sets about deciphering the story of loss and love encoded in the names and attributes of its flowers. The garden serves as a metaphor for Gwen’s voyage of self-discovery, as well as that of her friends.

Carefully composed and evocative, Humphreys’ prose deftly carries the narrative. Reflecting on the changes wrought by the war, Gwen says: “I realize that we haven’t left our lives. They have left us. The known things in them. The structure of our days. All the bones of who we are have been removed from us. We have been abandoned by the very facts of ourselves, by the soft weight of the old world.” Where Humphreys’ third novel falters is in the character of Gwen. Even in her most vulnerable moments, she remains an elusive figure, a curiosity rather than

someone who elicits great empathy. As with a beautiful garden, it is the texture of the book more than any individual aspect that lingers in the mind.

The opening lines of Vancouverite Nancy Richler’s second novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, happen to feature a garden. It is the spring of 1911 in Siberia, and Miriam, the 23-year-old Jewish narrator, is serving the fifth year of a life sentence for her part in the failed 1905 uprising. Describing the smell of mould and decay as a fellow inmate turns the compost in the prison yard, she sets up the story’s twin themes of loss and regeneration. The story is framed as a letter Miriam is writing to her daughter —born shortly after her imprisonment and now living with an aunt in Montreal—explaining her own childhood and the events leading to her political involvement. A prominent, and vividly drawn, figure in Miriam’s chronicle is her forward-thinking

stepmother, Tsila, who prides herself on raising an intellectual daughter. Haunted (at times, literally) by a past filled with misfortune, and living in dangerous times for a Jew, Miriam must negotiate a pass between the traditionalism of her small village and the revolutionary ideas percolating in the Russian underground.

In a refreshing departure from most novels about revolution, Your Mouth Is Lovely places women at its centre. Richler, who holds a master’s degree in Russian studies, has created a string of strong, intelligent women, from strike leaders to village yentas. Even the old women’s gossip, so easy to parody, is infused with dignity and wit. The author is equally adept at integrating the political issues of the day into the text. Never forced, they simply become part of the fabric of her characters’ lives. In Richler’s book, both story and texture leave a lasting impression. fffl