It is no easy task to politicize the garden. As one of the founding religious and cultural constructs of the Western tradition (the biblical narrative of Eden) the garden remains largely a sacred space and a sacred narrative that marks the beginning (in the act of expulsion) and ending (in the hope of a teleological return) for a certain historical humanity. In its botanical manifestation, the garden functions as a key phenomenon of the European Enlightenment: in the scientific community, the Linnaean system of classification is as equally axiomatic as the Genesis story. Coupled with the long history of colonial expansion, this same scientific discourse endowed various geographical sites across the planet with essentialized and racialized meanings that purported to speak the truth of many non-Western cultures and spaces (British Guyana, for instance, was coded as the true Edenic paradise by Walter Scott, and Ghana as one of the dark spaces of the planet). In Garden Plots: The Politics and Poetics of Gardens Shelley Saguaro competently situates the sacred space of the garden within this intricate realm of the political and adds a much-needed reconsideration of a subject matter historically characterized in exclusively aesthetic (and nostalgic) terms.
The book is divided into four chapters and a short conclusion: 1) “Botanical Modernisms,” which treats short narratives by Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, and Eudora Welty; 2) “Natural History and Postmodern Grafting,” which focuses on John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, and Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party; 3) “Postcolonial Landscapes,” which focuses on J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K., Toni Morrison’s Paradise, V. S. Naipual’s [End Page 462] The Enigma of Arrival, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Gardens in the Dunes; and 4) “How Does Your Cyber Garden Grow,” which focuses on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Philip K. Dick’s Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep?, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and William Gibson’s Virtual Light. The short concluding chapter ends with a discussion of Jamaica Kincaid’s 2005 book Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas. The book therefore spans five distinct geopolitical spaces: England, the United States, South Africa, Trinidad, and northern India/Tibet (six if you count cyberspace).
In the endeavor to “politicize the garden,” Saguaro opens with a personal but important anecdote (xii). At the 1996 Cheltenham International Festival of Literature (which took up gardens as a key theme) Saguaro witnessed the audience’s hostile reaction to Jamaica Kincaid’s reconstellation of the garden against the backdrop of the colonization of the Caribbean islands. The claiming and naming of indigenous flora, argued Kincaid, was part and parcel of the very imperial logic that supported the more overt political activities of the colonial order. Members of the audience, who looked on the garden primarily as a site of apolitical pleasure, were not convinced. The example thus serves as a powerful signal to its readers that the book will confront head on the institutionalized barriers that continue to stand between gardens and politics.
After some partially disappointing discussions of modernist texts, the book begins to blossom in the second chapter, specifically in the analysis of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. Here Saguaro makes a number of provocative and rewarding connections between gender relations, Judith Butler’s work on performativity, and Michel Foucault’s archeological work on discursive categorization, reaching the conclusion that Winterson’s novel posits a “counter-myth to that of the Garden of Eden” (111). There is also an interesting discussion of Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, enriched by connections drawn between the novel, the United States national environmental campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, and Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental work Silent Spring. By far the richest section of the book is the chapter entitled “Postcolonial Landscapes.” Here Saguaro situates Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. against the backdrop of the colonization of the Cape, which became in 1772 a “destination for plant-hunting...