Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively review – a rewarding, evocative ramble

In this vivid meditation, the novelist traces her love of gardens from childhood in Egypt to London and through art and literature

Penelope Lively modestly admits she is “only the most amateur gardener”. And yet this delightful and very personal paean to gardens amply demonstrates her abiding love of tending them.

From the hot, sunny garden in Egypt where she grew up and discovered the joys of reading amid bamboo groves and lily ponds, to the small London one in her ninth decade and with a chronic back problem, gardens have always played a “formative and essential” role in her life.

A hands-on gardener, not afraid to get what Virginia Woolf called “chocolate earth” under her nails, Lively sees gardening as a vital, even therapeutic encounter with nature. Importantly for a novelist, “gardens are never just themselves: they are allusive, evocative”. In this rewarding ramble through the sumptuous blooms of art (Monet’s water lilies, Nolde’s peonies) and literature (Larkin wasn’t keen, referring to his “bloody garden”), Lively finds in our love of gardens a rich and enduring connectedness to memory and the passage of time.

Life in the Garden is published by Penguin. To order a copy for £8.49 (RRP £9.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


PD Smith

The GuardianTramp

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