“A garden is a metaphor for life at almost every level.”
As “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” by Andrew Crofts offers gardening metaphor after gardening metaphor, this weighty quote is a natural place to begin.
I intend to highlight a few more of Crofts’ insightful agricultural comparisons, but, first, I’d like to briefly explain the premise of this novel. Basically, a ghostwriter (someone paid to write texts for others) is commissioned to help the leader of an unnamed turbulent Middle Eastern country write his autobiography.
The leader, affectionately called “Mo,” is facing trying times in his country. Random riots burst out, dead bodies fill makeshift trenches and the threat of rebellion is an over-powering stench in the streets.
Mo naively believes getting his story to the public will convince the people of his innocence and good intentions and staunch the flow of mutiny. At the very least, he hopes it will ensure him a spot in history as an illustrious ruler.
See, Mo is aware that “we all start as simple seeds,” that “we are planted on Earth and we grow naturally, some of us thriving and some of us withering if left to the care of nature alone.” He wants to thrive, rather than wither.
The bad news about “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” is that the reader will easily fall into the trap of feeling sympathetic towards a dictator.
The good news about “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” is that the dictator doesn’t seem to be a main character, just a necessary cog to the machine, so you don’t have to feel too guilty about the given sympathy.
In fact, Mo often takes the backseat to Caroline, the ghostwriter’s wife. At first, she is just a name the writer drops momentarily when he’s feeling homesick, something the reader curiously questions, but doesn’t obsess about.
As time goes by, Caroline is mentioned more frequently and in longer narratives, until finally, she becomes a permanent fixture in the story, as the ghostwriter’s own dirty, little secrets come to light.
There is one more character to mention – Lou, the wise, old gardener who never runs out of poetic, thought-provoking nuggets of truth.
The most profound of Lou’s metaphors also happens to be the theme of the novel: everything is mended by the soil. Lou goes on to prophesize, “you can have a battlefield covered in corpses and the next year you have a field of poppies.” Not quite as lacy and frilly as the first bit, but certainly more descriptive.
Crofts’ garden metaphors are more often than not spot-on, the kind of writing that a reader can’t help but underline, highlight and dog-ear, but the novel itself is stilted. Crofts seem to have had a wonderful idea for a story, but somewhere along the way from thought to type, it lost a few vital pieces.
What I mean is it just feels like something is missing, like perhaps, the author wrote the bare bones of the story and was in the middle of fleshing it out completely when the doorbell rang.
But even if its shortcomings are taken into account, I found the book to be compelling, if not addictive. If you’re looking for a decent read and all of the library’s copies of John Green’s “Paper Towns” are out, I would suggest giving it a shot.
After all, as Lou would say, “Gardening separates us from the animals.” So does reading.
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