cover image THE LOST GARDEN


Helen Humphreys, . . Norton, $23.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05183-4

Evocative, if occasionally clunky, Humphreys's third novel (following Afterimage) is the story of an Englishwoman's search for her place in a world permeated by war. The narrator, 35-year-old Gwen Davis, is a horticulturist who flees bombed-out WWII London to manage a team of "land girls"—women who grow vegetables as part of the war effort—at a country estate. She struggles to manage her wayward charges, who are more interested in the Canadian soldiers billeted in the main house than in cultivating potatoes, and writes letters in her head to her idol Virginia Woolf, whose recent death has left her feeling bereft. She also tries to seduce the world-weary, hard-drinking Captain Raley, who has a secret of his own that dooms their relationship. Though her conflicts pale next to those of the soldiers waiting to be posted to battle and even those of her new friend, Jane, whose cousin is a casualty of war and whose fiancé is missing in action, it is Gwen's quiet self-discovery that is at the center of the novel. Humphreys renders convincingly her first, fleeting experience of deep friendship and love. Unfortunately, the story is sometimes marred by overwrought or cloying prose, though Humphreys's language also has its moments of elegance (during the blitz, "houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight"). Humphreys doesn't quite have the narrative energy of Pat Barker and Jane Gardam, but fans of those authors may enjoy this exploration of the impact of WWII on English life. Agent, Frances Hanna. 3-city author tour. (Oct.)