Gwen Davis has worked for years at the Royal Horticulture Society in London when she volunteers for the Women's Land Army as a way to escape the Blitz. Gwen is generally quiet, almost invisible, ill at ease with others, and convinced of her plainness and undesirability so being in charge of an outfit of young women, especially young women determined to make the most of life in the midst of wartime, is a stretch for her. When Gwen arrives at the country estate where she is to be in charge, she finds that a Canadian regiment is also on the grounds as they await orders and her Land Girls have made themselves at home with the men. Initially Gwen wants no fraternizing, after all; the Land Girls are there to plant potatoes and do their part producing food for the war effort, but she quickly realizes that a lighter hand will return better results. It doesn't hurt that she is intrigued by Raley, the Canadian Commander. With the help of Jane, whose fiance is missing in the war, Gwen starts to soften, learning not only how to lead but also how to connect personally. When Gwen finds a lost garden, one not on any map of the estate and seemingly unknown to the others there, she sets about bringing it back to life, trying to understand the motivation behind building it. Divided into three distinct parts labeled loss, longing, and faith, Gwen tends to the hidden garden as she herself traverses these three states of experience and feeling alongside the corresponding plants blooming and fading.
Humphreys is a master at beautiful language and dreamy imagery and she has drawn a lovely, introspective novel about love and memory and connection. Like the growing season of the gardens, the time the characters have together is fleeting and there is a melancholic and elegiac feel to the novel. Watching Gwen bloom, watching her open her heart to others, to desire, to love is exquisitely done. She is certainly the central character of the novel, the other characters acting as accents. And it is Gwen's personal growth that is carefully detailed in quiet ways, like her giving each of the Land Girls the nickname of a potato variety, starting by calling them exclusively by these nicknames, but slowly coming to use the young women's real names as the book comes to its quiet close. Humphreys writes stunningly of nature and the poetry to be found in plants, weaving nature into this very human story of a desire for connection and love, tying Gwen and the gardens together wonderfully. This is a graceful and stunning novel, reaffirming for me that I should pull the rest of Humphreys's novels off my shelf sooner rather than later so I can submerge myself again in the beauty and magnificence that is her writing.