[1893: Mary has come to see her sister Liddy, who is married to an artist]
Here was Liddy, formerly confined to the house in a shift and shawl, now a young wife, in a pretty white cambric blouse with wide sleeves and a square yoke and a velvet coverall of peacock feather over her shoulders, concealing a suspicious thickening around her middle. Her skirt was a deep garnet velvet; her little boots polished and clean. She was completely herself, the wife of a promising young artist at home in her cottage, and at the same time utterly alien to Mary…
[Years later – Eliza is the child Liddy was pregnant with]
Eliza was wearing a pair of wings Liddy had made from the old box of costumes he’d kept for sitters in his Blackfriars studio. Gossamer silver gauze they were… She had made a pair for John but he refused tow ear them, because he said he was afraid he’d turn into something with wings and fly away. He liked to stroke Eliza’s though, watching her as she flitted around the garden. Eliza was a do-er, John an observer.
commentary: I loved Harriet Evans’ Wildflowers – blogpost last year – which I described as Noel Streatfeild crossed with Daphne du Maurier. I then wondered why you would need any more of a recommendation than that: 'just go and read it' I said. This one is a quite different book, but my reaction is very much the same. The Garden of Lost and Found is engrossing and clever and funny and beautifully-observed, with a dual timeline plot, a beautiful family house, a clever artist, and some desperately sad and dark moments. There is one of the most horrible characters you could wish (not) to meet, in the guise of an apparently reasonable woman. And although this could be called a ‘family saga’, some elements are as dysfunctional as you could imagine. Families do not come off that well…
The first strand is set in early 20th century London with the disturbing and disturbed Dysart family, and the artist Ned Horner; the second features a descendant in modern times, Juliet, who has a disintegrating marriage, demanding children, and a hope that an unexpected legacy might help change her life.
Harriet Evans manages these strands extraordinarily well, and makes them work despite remarkable changes of tone. Juliet’s modern life is hilarious, awful, and recognizable – as are her clothes:
…when she was thin, and had time to blow-dry her hair every day, and wore wrap dresses and proper suede slingbacks instead of long Titian hair hastily pulled into a bun from which it kept escaping, a too-long fringe that tickled her eyelashes, a long flared silk skirt covered in a pattern of curling peacock feathers which she’s found in a charity shop and decided to rebrand as a vintage find.There are some great sharp moments dealing with modern life, social media, the sexism that still pervades in all kinds of areas. But Juliet isn’t always right, her imperfections and mistakes show up too.
And then there is the story from a century before: very dark at times, and sad, and tremendously affecting. There are faint echoes of the AS Byatt novel Possession (a very early appearance on the blog, two entries), and – I don’t understand something.
---I know I am always banging on about this: see also, Lissa Evans, Amanda Craig, Hilary McKay (click on labels below to see blogposts) and more ---
AS Byatt won the Booker Prize and she and her sister Margaret Drabble are ‘taken seriously’ in the literary world. The Garden of Lost and Found is a proper novel, it is thought-provoking and thoughtful, confidently and cleverly written. I read it a few weeks ago now, and it has come back into my mind frequently ever since. And I want to say: what does Harriet Evans have to do to be treated as a ‘serious author’? This is what I said about Wildflowers:
It is yet another book that I’m sure many people would describe as ‘family saga’ or ‘chicklit’ or ‘beach read’. And it IS those things, but without the dismissive overtone. There’s a Catch-22 in which I don’t want to imply that being any of those things is in any way unimportant, but I also wish there was more recognition for this kind of book: it’s a proper novel.
And the same applies here. It is a great, fascinating book and I recommend it whole-heartedly.
At the centre of the book is the painting that shares its name with the novel: it is, I think, extremely hard for a writer to describe an imaginary painting and make it live in the reader’s mind, and make you believe that the picture is a great one, but she does that so well.
Millions around the world had queued up to see it, to stare hungrily at the sight of that beautiful English country garden in the late afternoon, the two children, one with those curious birds’ wings, crouched at the top of the lichen-and-daisy speckled steps, peering into the house, watching their mother writing.
That made it hard for me to find illos for this post, so I just went for some details round the edges.
The Artist's Studio: Lady Hazel Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Stepdaughter Eileen by John Lavery.
Gabrielle Vallotton in the Studio by Felix Valloton.
The Artist's Studio, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania by NC Wyeth.
All from the Athenaeum website.
The photograph, from the State Library of New South Wales , shows PL Travers (author of Mary Poppins) as a young actress playing in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.