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Unearthed

Unearthed (with the subtitle: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden) is a memoir by a writer who lives in Toronto, named Alexandra Risen. Tuffy P recently bought me a copy of this book at the Toronto Botanical Gardens. It interested me right away because the book is centred around a spectacular but abandoned ravine garden, apparently  hidden away in downtown Toronto.

The author and her husband bought this highly unusual huge ravine property and over the next few years, against all odds, managed to completely renovate the house, put in a swimming pool, and clean up and restore a huge overgrown mess of a garden paradise, complete with a two story gazebo she describes as a pagoda.  They must have spent a fortune achieving all this from the descriptions of all the work done and the construction and clean-up difficulties presented by the ravine setting. The point of the whole business though, is obviously to go beyond the story of a well-to-do single-income family, throwing scads of money and sweat at a massive renovation project.

Ms. Risen links the discovery and restoration of this garden to a personal transformation. The narrative swerves back and forth between the garden experience, her childhood, the death of her father, and the decline and death of her mother. This personal transformation culminates in a blessing ceremony in their exquisitely restored pagoda, complete with smoldering smudge stick. Risen even took the trouble to invite her “hero” Gordon Lightfoot to the blessing ceremony, but Gord failed to respond to the invitation.

There is something interesting about each of the streams of this story, Risen’s life with her parents and sister, her life with her friends, her husband and her son. Still, I had a very difficult time buying into the broad metaphor. It is as if during the process of restoring this crazy garden (complete with deer, raccoons, invasive plants, a forest of trees, multiple ponds, a steady stream of arborists and contractors, etc. etc), the author suddenly grew up and was finally able to come to terms with a childhood in which she knew nothing about her parents’ stories, their friends, and their apparently unhappy, smile-less life together.

The chapters have titles like Knotweed, Lily of the Valley, Serviceberries and Irises. At the end of each of the chapters, we are given recipes for something or another that came out of the featured garden. Examples are Sour Cherry Liqueur, Primrose Meringues, Sugared Rose Petals and Mulberry Granita. Each of these refers the reader to page 267 for “information on safety and sourcing of plants”. I suppose the publisher was concerned the book might encourage people to forage foolishly and consume something poisonous. More than anything these recipes were a structural device, and while the author tried to integrate her choices with the rest of the narrative, in my opinion the book would not have been weaker had she dispensed with all of them. I just didn’t think they were compelling enough to earn their keep.

While the garden captured my imagination, by the time Risen was looking up Gordon Lightfoot’s address, I really didn’t feel compelled to learn anything else about this family. I was done and I was beginning to find the narrative somewhat annoying. I might have abandoned ship, had I not been so close to the end. I suspect it would have been more interesting to me (but less interesting to the author) to read a much more detailed narrative about the garden restoration or even a fictionalized story of people much like the author’s parents and their story from the Ukraine during WWII through their migration and adjustment to life in Edmonton.

I think there will be some readers who will respond to this book more enthusiastically than I and who might even think my reservations are cynical and overblown. I can only say that I really wanted to love this book, but for me, it was just an OK read.

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