The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise by Olivia Laing

Reviewed by Chris McCreary

The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise
by Olivia Laing
W.W. Norton & Co
June 2024, Hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0393882001, $27.99

In her introduction to the 2018 edition of Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, Olivia Laing writes that she learned from the filmmaker’s example – and especially from this collection of the diaries he kept from 1989 to 1990 –  how “to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).”* This unbounded sense of exploration characterizes her own work as well: her writing moves fluidly between autobiography, cultural criticism, and artist biography while leaving room for digressions into historical anecdotes along the way. 

Like W.G. Sebald, another enduring source of inspiration for her, Laing has often used the narrative frame of a journey to intertwine her own experiences with that of her chosen subjects. In To The River, her walking tour of the Ouse unfolds alongside an exploration of the life and art of Virginia Woolf, while the disorientation of Laing’s ill-fated relocation to New York serves as the backdrop for Lonely City; as she chronicles her own attempts to overcome alienation and isolation, she simultaneously delves into the lives of artists such as Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz, for whom perceptions of the city were central to conceptions of themselves and their work.

With her ambles restricted during lockdown, Laing turned her attention, by necessity, to something much closer to home: her own garden. Even before she and her husband, the poet Ian Patterson, moved into their house in Suffolk in 2020, she was researching not just the history of the property but also the life of Mark Rumary, a former owner who had redesigned the existing gardens shortly after settling there with his partner, the classical musician Derek Melville, in 1961. Her mission, she says, was not just to restore Rumary’s garden but “also trace how it had intersected with history, as even the smallest garden invariably must, since every plant is a traveller in space and time.” (15) 

Just as Rumary and his partner relied on discretion regarding their relationship (Laing notes that as late as 2000, Rumary was describing Melville as his friend), Laing’s own childhood was fraught with a similar kind of secrecy to hide her mother’s same-sex partnership. Laing recounts how, once her mother was outed within their village, she found herself expelled from her own version of an innocent, Edenic paradise: when the family abruptly relocated, she lost access to the beloved garden at the convent where she attended school. “The apple of knowledge had been plucked,” Laing writes, “and maybe the knowledge was sexuality, or maybe it was the knowledge of how cruel the policing of sexuality can be. Either way, the garden gates were barred.” (35)

Throughout The Garden Against Time, Laing returns to the concepts of gates and walls: while she sees the need for secrecy, or at least privacy, as having been crucial for the formation of what she calls a queer “counter-state” (213) in the face of oppression, she is well aware that borders and barriers to access are tools of oppression as well. Noting Donald Trump’s obsession with a border wall, she writes, “When the language of exclusion is no longer coded but spoken unambiguously, one becomes increasingly alert to its disguised forms too.” 

Seeing “the impossibility of Eden as an apolitical, ahistorical space,” Laing envisions luxurious and accessible commons while also questioning her own use of natural resources: while lockdown saw a resurgent interest in home gardening around the world, she notes, we also live in a moment characterized by drought and other signs of  rapid climate change. (122) In search of inspiration, she turns to figures such as utopian socialists Goodwyn and Catherine Barmby, Abu Wadd, who grew roses in the rubble of rebel-held Aleppo, and artist-activist William Morris, for whom gardens were central to what Laing sees as a progressive yet ultimately flawed vision for social reform. For her, Morris’s example is useful at our moment in time precisely because of its failings: “we need to start from our contaminated present and not some future position of undiluted purity,” she believes. (156)

Ultimately, The Garden Against Time is many things: a memoir written during a time of great societal and personal change; an acknowledgement of the horrific subjugation of land and people in the name of luxury; a loving tribute to her forebears for whom gardening was but one facet of their artistic practice. At once a cautionary tale and a celebration of a grand tradition of queerness, creativity, and community, The Garden Against Time invites the reader to join her in what Laing calls the “heretical dream” of a shared paradise. 

*This was also published in the Guardian and can be read here. 

About the reviewer: Chris McCreary is the author of several books and chapbooks including the chapbook Maris McLamoureary’s Dictionnaire Infernal (Empty Set Press), co-authored with Mark Lamoureux. His new book of poems, awry, is forthcoming later in 2024 from White Stag, and more recent work can be found at Cul-de-sac of Blood. He lives in South Philadelphia and on IG at @chris___mccreary.