May 25, 2019

The Winter Garden

by Johanna Verweerd
translated by Helen Richardson-Hewitt

I picked this one up at a free book exchange, because I thought it was about a garden. Well, there's a garden in it, but it's really part of the background. The main character, a lonely sombre woman called Ika, works for a landscape designer, she's planning a garden for a greenhouse setting, with careful selections to bloom in the dull, cold months. But not much of this is mentioned beyond her at the drawing board, and although there are suggestions at how important the small garden at her childhood home was to her, it's not a large part of the story, either. Most of it is about relationships- the strained, cold, unloving relationship Ika had with her parents (while her younger sister was cheerful and beloved). The narrative moves often between past and present, showing how Ika feels now and how memories arise of her miserable childhood. She had finally escaped her family's unloving environment, leaving home to work for a landscaper and rent her own small place, but now returns home over a decade later upon learning that her mother is very ill, probably dying. There's awkward quiet moments caring for her bedridden mother, brief conversations with her sister and some neighbors, the village doctor, the teacher from her old school- all slowly piecing together her past. Why it was so painful and unhappy. Why she still feels burdened by those feelings. It wasn't until the very last pages that the dark secret of her childhood finally came to light- and the answer wasn't shocking, or very satisfying either. I really wish there had been more to the story about her slowly growing hope in the new life of young plants as she cared for the garden, but this seemed to be more a metaphor stuck in, for the unfolding hope in her heart that she could build a new life for herself. Mostly it is stilted and understated, full of unexplained resentments and quiet suffering. I suppose a lot of the stiff feeling could be because I read a translated text, but perhaps it is just this author's style, as well- understatement, things told and not much shown. I just - didn't really get a strong feeling for most of it.

Also, it's a book with religious themes. It really didn't detract from the story for me, but it didn't add a lot either- I suppose because phrases and quoted scriptures which seemed to have a lot of weight and meaning for the characters- just didn't for me. I felt like there was a depth of intent there, which I wasn't picking up on. I failed to really grasp the more current relationships, either- the new friendship Ika had with her employer, the warmth she felt meeting her sister's husband and her nephew for the first time- it was all stated, not really felt. At least by this reader.

Rating: 2/5                    269 pages, 1995


  1. That book sounds rather drab and depressing.

  2. Just as much as the cover looks.


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