The Rosenblum family applied for six exit visas so they could escape from Berlin before the Second World War. They only received three, so Jack, Sadie and baby Elizabeth travel to England, never to see Sadie’s parents or brother again. This novel is about their efforts to make a home in their new country, and the different methods they use for trying to deal with their horrendous loss, guilt and grief.
What has this to do with gardens or nature, you may well ask? The answer is - everything, because whatever the theme of the story, Natasha Solomons is first and foremost a landscape writer.
There are three levels of landscape in this novel: the landscape of the human mind, the real landscape of flora and fauna, and the supernatural landscape of spirit and imagination, expressed in ancient myths, stories and beliefs. When these landscapes achieve a harmonious balance, healing happens.
Once the Rosenblums leave the city for the country, the line between humans and the wild becomes blurred. When the weather is kind and gentle, and the garden is blooming, nature is pleasurable. But nature can also be sinister, unpredictable and dangerous.
She kept her mouth tight shut, worried that if she opened it the darkness would pour inside and choke her … There was another sound: a soft thudding and flapping. … As she fumbled with a bolt, the door burst open and a cascade of creatures flew at her, their panicked fluttering filling the air as she screamed out, terrified that they would get tangled in her hair. Looming grey shadows poured out from the cupboard and flapped across the ceiling: she could not tell if they were outsized bats or birds. There was only the thud, thud as they flew into the walls or collided with the window glass. She ran from the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
In time, Jack and Sadie got to know and feel the garden and the countryside. They started to change, started to move further along the path to acceptance.
Despite the usual quarrels with her husband, Sadie felt more peaceful than she had for many years … in the mornings she was woken by the scent of roses seeping through the open windows. The sounds of the wood pigeons in the roof no longer alarmed her…
… At the side of the house the garden reverted to scrub; the hedgerows crept forward and brambles and bright yellow gorse bushes made it impassable. The stinging nettles were five feet tall, yet butterflies landed on them effortlessly, somehow never getting stung. Sadie neither planted nor weeded; Hitler had declared the Jews weeds and plucked them out whenever he found them. She knew that a plant was only a weed if unwanted by the gardener, so she refused to move a single one, and they sprouted up wherever they wanted, between flagstones on the terrace or in a riotous mass in the unruly beds. The garden had been there for too many years for the Rosenblums to make any sudden changes.
As for Jack, he had decided to make a golf course. Creating a golf course entailed an assault on the landscape, a struggle for mastery, to smooth the land out to achieve his dream of owning the best golf course in the country. It was only after many setbacks that he came to understand the land for what it was. He stopped struggling and was able to accept, and work with, the needs and features of the ancient land.
… Something had shifted within Jack … the slow beauty of the country had crept upon him, and he wanted his course to be defined by the rise and fall of the landscape… Jack listened to the men, and learned to listen to the landscape, until it seemed to whisper the direction they should go, and the positions of the holes… he felt time as he dug and raked with his men: the soil was millenia old and held countless lives and deaths – things born or budded, died and rotted.
Surrounded by and steeped in nature, Sadie and Jack had separate supernatural experiences. Sadie saw and kept company with her dead mother and brother. Jack’s friend Curtis told him the old Dorset tales, and these gradually affected Jack and helped him to change too.
… Jack filled his lungs with fresh air and looked again at the light shimmering along the grass. The wind rippled through it like waves on an emerald sea. He felt safe under this big blue sky…
“No one tells us what to do but Jack”, murmured Curtis softly…” Jack-in-the-Green… ‘ee keeps everythin’ in balance.” He gestured to the concrete bungalows on the horizon. “E’ll flood out them houses, in time, turn ‘em back to water meadow an’ muck. Not these ten year perhaps, but ‘Ee will.”
”So, have you ever seen him, this Jack?”
Curtis chuckled. “No one ‘as seen Jack-in-the-Green. ‘Ee’s not like that – a thing or a man. ‘Ee is the trees, an' the gleam in the grass an' the damp mornin' dew an' that feelin' you gits in an evenin' when the wind’s in the ash leaves.
Jack felt a strange sensation in his belly and when he closed his eyes he imagined that he could hear the worms churning the earth beneath the grass. There was something familiar about Curtis’s words, as though he was telling a story that Jack already knew…
“So Jack must have wanted this golf course then?”
“Aye”, Curtis pulled his hat over his eyes and from beneath the brim added, “’Fer now.”
Inside their inner and their outer worlds Jack and Sadie finally find a place they can call home.