MY GARDEN (BOOK):
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar Straus Giroux. 229 pp. $23
This is the time of year when the gardener labors in the fields of his imagination. With last year's plants mulched and put to bed, it is a time for planning and for dreaming. In the dark days of winter, the glossy or chatty catalogues of nurseries arrive to lure the gardener to think Bigger, Rarer, More Exotic. Or, simply, More. The wise publisher schedules books on gardening for these months when there's no putting spade to soil and the housebound gardener has more time for reading--especially for thoughtful, resolutely nonpractical books such as this one.
Jamaica Kincaid's "My Garden (Book):" weaves together essays and articles from the New Yorker, Travel & Leisure and other magazines, while seeking to unify them thematically. The resulting book has structural problems, but these are largely redeemed by the inherent interest of the contents, the liveliness of the writing and the freshness of the point of view.
Kincaid lives and gardens in Vermont, a far cry from the Caribbean island of Antigua where she was born and raised. She has written several books based on her family and her island--including "Annie John," "My Brother" and "The Autobiography of My Mother." Much of the appeal of "My Garden (Book):" stems from her comparisons of Antigua and Vermont, "the two places I am from." Her subjects range from her fondness for the common American sweet peas named Old Spice and Early Mammoth, to her anxiety about a wisteria plant that blooms out of season, to an entertaining account of an arduous three-week trip to China in the company of botanists, nursery owners and horticulturalists seeking the seeds of rare plants.
The book is a bit of a grab bag: In one chapter, Kincaid reproduces a neatly typed order to her favorite nursery for $204 worth of fruit trees, an unimposing bundle of sticks that turn out to be totally unsuited to the climate in her village. In other chapters she recommends gifts for gardeners, raises questions about the sex life of gardening giant Gertrude Jekyll, and sketches the work of Carolus Linnaeus and his binomial system for naming plants. She ruminates almost sentimentally on her Vermont home, on bringing up her children and on the very different life she knew as a child in Antigua.
Kincaid cultivates her idiosyncrasies as thoroughly as she does her garden. She is cranky, opinionated, quirky, outspoken. She fascinates herself. In her confessional mode she is sometimes funny, occasionally embarrassing: She describes herself sitting surrounded by books, "trying, with no success, to remove some randomly growing strands of hair from my chin (a sign of my age, I have noticed that old women have randomly-placed strands of hair growing on their chins) and I was tugging at them just the way I would if they were weeds." She can be very open about her own shortcomings. She describes herself as given to "nervous breakdowns (this is how I characterize my monumentally rude and truly insulting behavior--as a temporary lapse in sanity)."
When, after years of resisting, she finally succumbs to the charms of an exceptional rhododendron named Jane Grant after the wife of the first editor of the New Yorker, she is puzzled. "At this very moment," she writes, "I can't remember why I resisted a plant only because it is named after the wife of the first editor of The New Yorker. And this only underlines for me the flabby basis on which so many of my opinions and decisions rest, so flabby I don't even remember them."
There is much good reading here, though it's more revealing about Kincaid than it is about gardening as art or science. Less successful are her efforts to impose a unifying theme on these miscellaneous pieces. From the start she strains to establish metaphoric connections among Columbus, the history of the Atlantic slave trade and gardening. This begins with her recognition of the odd shape of her first garden. "It dawned on me that the garden I was making (and am still making and will always be making) resembled a map of the Caribbean and the sea that surrounds it--I only marveled at the way the garden is for me an exercise in memory, a way of remembering my own immediate past, a way of getting to a past that is my own (the Caribbean Sea) and the past as it is indirectly related to me (the conquest of Mexico and its surroundings)." Her concern is with gardening as a form of colonialism that devalues the native flora and constructs botanical gardens such as that in the St. John's, Antigua, of her childhood--filled with plants from every other part of the British Empire.
Another aspect of this colonialism is the desire to possess by naming the newly "discovered" plants of the New World. There is interesting material here, but it doesn't hold together. By the time she arrives at a chapter on the meaning of history for "me and all who look like me," her garden in Vermont seems very far away. Jill Fox's illustrations for the book--pretty sketches of flowers and landscaping--also seem out of place. Kincaid is not a pretty writer. A sketch of her weeding the hairs on her chin would be more appropriate.
As a gardening writer, then, Kincaid is not on the same level as her New Yorker predecessor Katharine White or the imperious Eleanor Perenyi. But as an edgy writer with a new perspective on the history of gardening, she is highly recommended.
Nina King, associate editor of Book World.