“I hang like a waterbeetle on the meniscus of Time” : Katherine Swift in “The Morville Hours”
Reviewed by Jenny Woods
This is not a gardening book – although the growth of one garden forms the framework on which this collection of tales is hung. This is a many-storied, many-storeyed narrative, weaving layers of life and language through a scaffold of turning season and structured time.
Inspired by the early monastic settlers of the garden’s location, each section of the book is themed and bounded by the cycle of Benedictine prayer: from Vigils, a time of new beginnings, the start of a day, of a year, of a garden; through Sext, the peak of praise and the joy of full growth; to Compline, closure, completion and release – the essays are matched to the codified sequence of the Hours of Divine Office.
Within the beat of these bell-driven chapters the author explores the bones of the landscape she inhabits, the lives of the generations in that land before her and the roots of the language they share. The events have an almost timeless, dreamlike flow – drawing pictures of upsurging mountains and upthrusting weeds, telling tales of the ancient rituals of village life and the novelty of an opening flower. In harsh contrast, short excerpts from her own past and that of her parents are told starkly, bleakly relating the pains of feud and separation, of reconciliation followed by permanent loss.
If you need definitive advice on pruning clematis or prefer a strong, character-driven storyline, then look elsewhere. This is a book for those who note the changing time of sunrise each morning, the changing shade of wheat in the fields each day. It answers all those tricky questions – ‘Why do we say that?’, ‘Why is that road there?’, ‘Why don’t you pull up those weeds?’.
Yes, there are patches where the prose is over-purpled (whose isn’t!), the facts are occasionally quizzable and the editor’s hand could have been stronger. It’s not really a book to sit and read in long chunks – the narrative is, by its nature, fractured and episodic but, if you’re looking for a source of ‘did-you-know’ stories for dinner parties, a manageable chunk of pre-bedtime reading or a dip-in-and-out-able book for a fifteen-minute muse on philosophy, history, geology or, indeed, even gardening, it’s hard to resist.