GARDEN BY THE SEA by Mercè Rodoreda


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Amid a lush landscape, wealthy young Spaniards play at joy.

In a novel notable for its graceful, restrained prose—sensitively rendered by translators Tennent and Relaño—Catalan fiction writer Rodoreda (1908-1983) (War, So Much War, 2015, etc.) creates a finely etched portrait of 1920s Spanish society, as seen through the eyes of a quietly attentive gardener. “I’ve always enjoyed knowing what happens to people,” the gardener remarks in the book’s opening line, recalling, from the vantage of old age, six summers when he worked for the newly married Senyoret Francesc and his wife at their seaside villa outside of Barcelona. Tending his plants, the gardener has ample opportunity to observe the “cheerfulness and ostentation” of his employers and their guests, whose superficial revelry is blighted by suffering, loss, and failed dreams. From Quima, the easily affronted cook, who gets details from the maids; Toni, a stable hand who self-importantly calls himself a riding instructor; the laconic local innkeeper; and even the postman, the gardener is privy to an endless stream of gossip about the “fools,” as Quima calls them, “who create a lot of work for the rest of us.” Designing the beds, growing seedlings, replanting, and weeding take mindful care and sometimes exhausting effort. The garden itself, described in sensuous detail, takes a prominent role, an expression of the gardener’s aesthetic sensibility and of the arrogance and self-absorption of its owners. Justifiably proud of his plants, the gardener becomes irritated when guests pick flowers indiscriminately; and he is incredulous when ordered to remove a swath of flowerbeds to accommodate guests’ cars: “Do you suppose a flowerbed in full bloom is like a chair,” he retorts, “and you can just move it around as you please?” But for the wealthy class, the garden is a mere prop: The owner of a neighboring villa, for example, hurries to plant some greenery as decor for a party. More than once, seeing his own flowerbeds ruined, the gardener is pained “to think about the gladiolus and the fate they had met.” But, he acknowledges with calm resignation, “those who have the money make the rules.”

A captivating tale gently spun.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-948830-08-9
Page count: 206pp
Publisher: Open Letter
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2019


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