My book review of 'The Garden Against Time' by Olivia Laing

by Olivia Laing
The Garden Against Time
by Olivia Laing

In 2020, the writer, novelist and art critic Olivia Laing moved, with her husband, the poet Ian Patterson, to a village in Suffolk.


They bought a beautiful cottage with a walled garden which had been owned by the renowned garden designer, Mark Rumary.


A passionate gardener herself, Olivia resolved to return the garden to its former glory, and to write about the process.


Like many of us during the pandemic, though, she couldn't travel to research or explore other gardens for inspiration or direction so she turned to books for her way out of the isolation and stasis of that time. 


She rediscovered the life and poetry of John Clare, the creativity of William Morris and the philosophy of John Milton. She explored language, too, by delving into the Oxford English Dictionary to find that our definitions of words such as ‘paradise’ and ‘landscape’ are far removed from the original, earlier usage. She used the contemporary, global and political upheaval we were experiencing to look at how gardens had been created in the past through exploitation and privilege, and what we could do to create a better future for our natural and societal world.


Gardens are also associated with childhood memories for Olivia, so she recalls visiting the gardens of grand country houses with her father when her parents split up, becoming an environmental activist rather than finish her degree and training as a herbalist.


This is a beautifully readable book which boasts memoir, history and political debate, drawing richly on examples in literature and art through the centuries. There's so much here and it provides an oasis of calm contemplation with so many further avenues of delights to explore! I loved it.


You can read my interview with Olivia, when I visited her at home in Suffolk, here.

Date of this review: March 2024
Book publication date: 2nd May 2024