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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The Last Garden in England

I remember once reading an interview by author Kate Morton in which she shared, "I love stories in which the house is more than a setting, becoming a character in its own right." Like many of Morton's books, Julia Kelly's The Last Garden in England jumps between three related timelines, but in Kelly's novel, the nonhuman protagonist is a lush and various garden. While the women who spearhead each of the book's narrative strands are memorable and likable characters, it is the gardens at Highbury House that carry the story and hold amongst their leaves and blooms the moments of historical transformation, passion, thoughtful ambulation, and surprising danger that comprise the book. The Last Garden in England is a time slip novel anchored by place, even as that place undergoes significant change when converted from a grand estate garden to the grounds of a World War II convalescent hospital.

In 1907, the gardens at Highbury House are designed like a maze of rooms by the famous Venetia Smith (reminiscent of the oft-referenced Vita Sackville-West), consisting of a tea garden, a bridal garden, a children's garden, and. amongst still more, the story's perhaps most pivotal setting: the winter garden. Years after Venetia has gone to America under mysterious circumstances, the estate is run by the widow Diana Symonds, who finds herself suddenly a guest in her own home when the house is requisitioned for a convalescent hospital during the war. The WWII-timeline is mined for the most drama and depth, alternating between the perspectives of Diana, her cook Stella, and land girl Beth, a plot line that includes the struggles and grief of motherhood and the pains and joys of wartime love, as each woman, like Venetia, attempts to figure out how to best navigate the future and attain contentment. Finally, the present day timeline (which takes us through fall 2021, prompting a "where's your mask?" internal monologue) offers the chance to tie the strands together and answer overarching questions, as itinerant gardener Emma works to restore Smith's original designs at Highbury House while uncovering secrets of the past and contemplating what her future steps should be.

Kelly interweaves history, horticulture, and romantic heights to craft her latest novel, but perhaps the most interesting story is actually the research process the author undertook, revealing how the act of writing itself is its own particular and storied venture. As any writer of historical fiction must do, Kelly had to learn the nuances of her chosen eras, in particular the details that would lend authenticity to the 1940s convalescent hospital. Kelly's previous novels are also historical fiction forays, but The Last Garden in England presented a new kind of learning challenge, as Kelly has shared that when she began the book, she was living in a London flat with no garden and had forgotten the lessons her garden-enthusiastic father had taught her as a child. She shares, "Despite my lack of adult gardening experience, I jumped in to writing a book about three generations of women connected through an incredible historic garden feet first. Within the first chapter, however, I realized that I was going to need to do something drastic." On Kelly's website, readers can learn about the inspiration that stemmed from her father's garden, her visits to historical English gardens, and her efforts to look up plant varieties, climate, and design elements, which resulted in her detailed map of the Highbury House gardens, as seen below. It's easy to see how much influence and hold the setting of the book has on the author herself, who has gone on to chronicle her subsequent gardening forays in a blog appropriately titled The Author's Garden.

If you'd like to take a readerly walk through these grounds, request The Last Garden in England through our catalog. Better yet, consider a pairing! Has Kelly created a garden that carries a story as well as Morton's houses? Read her book together with Morton's The House at Riverton or The Distant Hours. Or if, like me, you like to simultaneously read a fiction and nonfiction book, tackle The Last Garden in England along with the recently reviewed memoir Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer to explore how gardens come to life in varying ways in literature. No doubt you'll see some of the same plants in Hamer's real gardens as in Kelly's well-researched fictional world.

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