THE lost garden by Helen Humphreys (HarperFlamingo), 184 pages,$28 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Emotional ache, fear, loneliness, Helen Humphreys evokes these sensations with unsettling clarity in her awesome third novel, The Lost Garden.Gardener Gwen Davis has been sent by the government to the Mosel estate in the Devon countryside outside London during the second world war. Her assignment: to generate provisions from the gardens there and supervise a team of teenage female volunteers.
But a platoon of soldiers soon to be posted has been billeted in the main house up the hill and is much more interesting to the restless young girls than Gwen's garden project. And Gwen, so personally unsure of herself, has difficulty mustering the authority to get them in line.
The discovery of a hidden garden on the grounds and her friendship with Jane, the eldest volunteer -- sent because waiting for her fiancé, who's missing in action, has brought her perilously close to a breakdown -- bring Gwen new energy.
So does a deepening crush on the captain of the troops billeted up the road. The Lost Garden, more than anything else, is a meditation on love and longing.
Humphreys's sparse and poetic prose makes vivid Gwen's desperate need to experience desire. Indeed, all the characters find themselves in a heightened emotional state brought on by their dread of war and the loss it inevitably brings.
Humphreys also turns the lost garden into an extended metaphor, each flower described as if it experiences all of life's changes. You will never look at peonies the same way again.