I discovered ‘Night Gardening’ by E.L.Swann through a post by Eva on books on neuroscience and neurological illness. (Thanks Eva :)) There was something haunting about the story and so I added it to my ‘TBR’ list. The book was available only in hardback and so was quite expensive (the equivalent of around twenty-five dollars). (I have this strange way of thinking – when a graphic novel is around twenty-five dollars and I like it, I don’t think twice about buying it. Because nearly all graphic novels cost atleast twenty dollars or more. But with respect to regular books, I think twice before buying a book which costs twenty-five dollars, because I think it is quite expensive. I don’t know why I think this way! Well, back to the story). So, I didn’t buy this book but kept looking at my ‘TBR’ list longingly. Recently I thought I will have a look at my ‘TBR’ list and try to get a few of the books on that list. Swann’s book was somewhere near the top and so I brushed aside my thoughts about its price and decided that it was time to get it. I placed my order.
When the package containing the book arrived, I opened it with a lot of care and looked at the book. It was beautifully produced with a lot of care and love. The cover was minimalistic, understated and beautiful. The pages of the book were made of thick paper with generous spacing. The font was not my favourite one, but it was not bad. Each chapter started with a picture of a flower and a quote from a gardening book. There was no introduction, no spoilers anywhere, no potted biography of the author. It was difficult to even tell whether the author was a man or a woman. There were even no quotes from reviews on the cover. With one exception. There was a description of the book by author Alexandra Ripley on the back cover. Ripley raved about the book. I loved reading every word of Ripley’s rave. It made me drop everything else and get into the book. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.
What I think
‘Night Gardening’ is about three characters. The first two are Maggie Welles, a sixty-one year old woman who is recovering from a stroke and Tristan Mallory, a sixty-odd year old man (I think so, though I don’t remember Tristan’s age being mentioned anywhere) who is a landscape architect. The third character is Maggie’s garden. There are other minor characters – Maggie’s daughter and son, Maggie’s neighbour Judith Stein who has hired Tristan to landscape her garden and a few others. The story starts with Tristan working on Judith’s garden with his assistants and Maggie watching what is happening next door through a gap in the wall. Then because of circumstances created by the author, Maggie falls down, Tristan comes down to help, and it is the beginning of, initially, a beautiful friendship, and later a loving relationship. Tristan gives a surprising gift to Maggie by laying a walk for her where she can practise walking during the day. Then later, Tristan comes over to Maggie’s place during the night to help groom her garden so that it can regain its lost glory. During this time Maggie and Tristan talk about gardens and trees and plants and their families and Japanese Zen Buddhist priest gardeners. They fall in love and make plans for the future. Maggie body and heart recovers and blooms as does her garden, slowly through the rest of the story.
So, what happens in the end? I can’t tell you that. You have to read the story to find out how it ends. I will just say this. When I read the last chapter, I was heartbroken, my eyes were filled with tears and I even got angry with E.L.Swann. E.L.Swann, why did you do this? Why??
‘Night Gardening’ is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. It is a beautiful love story. It is also a love poem on gardens and gardening. I cared for most of the characters in the story, I followed their fortunes closely and my heart beat faster when some of the events in the story hinted at a dissonance in the harmony of the melody. My favourite characters were Maggie and Tristan. And of course, Maggie’s garden, with its peonies and ferns and dogwoods and maples and wildflowers.
This is what Alexandra Ripley said about the book :
“Bring on the champagne! French, of course, and an exceptionally good year. Night Gardening is a cause for celebration. Make that a magnum, not a bottle. Night Gardening is what all of us who love to read have been waiting and longing for. A novel for grownups, for readers who care about the English language, who hunger for a story about people we come to know – a little – and care about – a lot – and miss when we finish the book and return, hugely enriched, to our various realities.
A toast and a hundred heartfelt ‘thank you’s to E.L.Swann. You gave me laughter and tears and magic. I envy you your gardening knowledge and your musical, beautiful prose. But the joy of a wonderful read is even stronger than jealousy.
May every literate woman inAmericaexperience the same joyousness. (We might even allow a few fortunate men the same treat.)”
I loved Ripley’s thoughts before I started the book. I agreed with them when I finished the book.
I think I will add ‘Night Gardening’ to my top-10 alltime favourite list. It is surprising that the book is not more well-known. It is also surprising that the author E.L.Swann is also not that well known too. I had to do some research before I discovered that the author was a woman. It took more research for me to find out that her actual name was Kathryn Lasky and she has written many children’s books and a few books for adults, most of which form part of a series featuring artist-sleuth Calista Jacobs. ‘Night Gardening’ seems to be the odd book in her list and a pure one-off. It is a book that I will read again.
Some of my favourite passages from the book :
“Hey, look ahead,” Tristan said suddenly.
“Oh my goodness, Polymnia canadensis,” Maggie whispered. On a stalk nearly six feet tall, a small flowered leafcup quivered in the night wind. They approached it silently. An unspectacular plant with washed out petals as small as a baby’s fingernails, it bent in the evening breeze toward them. Maggie extended her right hand to touch it as one would the downy crown of a baby’s head. “You should never have to be beautiful to be in a garden,” she spoke softly. “There is always a place for character actors.”
Tristan was watching Maggie now. She seemed hypnotized by the plant. She continued to speak softly in a barely audible whisper. “Well, with wildflowers, wild anything, I guess, there is not always a relationship between beauty and rarity.” She felt Tristan pull her closer. And she did feel something in that dead side of hers. She turned her head slowly to look at him. He said nothing, but his eyes looked at her, studied her in a way no one ever had before. It was as if he were diving right down into her soul. Tristan himself was simply beyond words. He felt that he was in the presence of something so strangely powerful and extraordinary – that words, language, were utterly useless. He wanted only to submit himself completely to her rareness. But he saw beauty in this rareness, not perhaps the vividness of a lady’s slipper in full flower. Maybe it was a light more than a color, pale green and shimmering like that found in the filtered light of a deep forest, falling in shafts piercing the leafy canopy and stirring the imagination.
The Beauty of Imagination
A slight wind ruffled the ornamental grasses, turning them into the liquid stream. There was even a visible current as a narrow swath of the grass turned its dark side toward her. The very few splinters of light that penetrated the shady canopy spilled across the moss like flitting minnows. There was a subtle stirring in Maggie’s imagination, in her mind’s eye, as she watched the light that seemed like fish. The moss trembled when a slight breeze shivered the still water in the middle of the lake. This is what happens here, Maggie thought. This is the place where time nearly stands still and space contracts until the universe is at one’s feet. Was she shrinking or was she growing larger? The spirit of the place filled her and yet at the same time, some of her flowed out into the deep nature of the third step garden. Here, she was in balance; here there were no beginnings and no endings. Here, all was one and continuous. Maggie did not have to turn around to feel the presence of the tree that she had nurtured and pruned for years. She felt its ancient spirit enfolding her.
People with Stories
The clients he got through his work with rock, through his obvious overtures to Asian art, its paintings, even its porcelains, were very different from the Sissinghurst gang. They were all people with stories to tell. Their lives were full of narrative. Each one was in his or her own way, though they might not know it, whether rich or poor, a poet, a painter, an artist. Through carefully drawing out their stories, Tristan could make them appreciate themselves better. That was the most satisfying part of a job. There was always a moment with clients like this when a light seemed to go on and it was within that split second of illumination that they realized that, yes indeed, they had more than just money or unformed desire, they had a story and a degree of artistry.
…it was the walk that beckoned. It summoned. It coaxed. A weariness dissolved from her limbs. A sap stirred. “Wick,” that was whatNanused to say. “It’s wick.” You nicked a dead-looking twig or branch with a small knife and you found a “greenish bit, something juicy” and you knew it was not dead. It was wick!
Ever since Maggie had met Tristan Mallory, hovering in the back of her mind, on the edges of her consciousness there had been an image, a word or words that she could not quite bring into focus. But now she did. It was gardener priest, those monks of ancientJapanwho designed many of the exquisite gardens that still lived and grew there. The foremost had been Muso Kokushi, designer of the Moss Temple of Saiho-ji and creator of the first karesansui, or dry gardens in which there is no water at all. It is only through the arrangements of rocks, pebbles, and moss that water is evoked in all of its moods and motion. There are references and suggestions of water – the swirls and cascades, still water or rippling ponds, even tumbling waterfalls but no actual water.
An Invisible Glass Wall
It was as if the screen of falling water had turned into an invisible glass wall now between them. They both mourned the distance, mourned the intimacy they had reveled in, which had now become something transient, a vagrant from some dreamworld, perhaps a complete chimera. They seemed slightly aghast at their newfound isolation.
“Have you ever heard the word yugen, Maggie?”
“Yes,” she whispered back.
“There was an ancient Japanese monk. He lived in the fifteenth century. His name was Shotetsu and he once said that yugen can be the thin cloud veiling the moon or the autumn mist wrapping the scarlet leaves on a mountainside.”
“Or the reflection of a flower’s color in a dew drop at dawn,” Maggie whispered.
“Yes,” he said and stroked the small of her back. So he knows, Maggie thought. He knows what he is to me and I never have to say the words.
Yugen also meant the lingering resonance of passing things and they both knew that come what may, they might, when they possessed nothing, possess all – if they were lucky. And this was the paradox of life, the riddle of the Japanese garden.
Amidst the inky greens, one branch, just one, had a limb of bright yellow leaves. She had seen this happen before, in the middle of summer; when you think it will go on forever, one tree decides to have its own private little autumn. It reminded Maggie of the time when she was quite small and it had suddenly begun to snow heavily. Her mother had gone out just a few hours before and had not taken her hat. When she came back her hair was covered with snow.
Have you read ‘Night Gardening’? What do you think about it?