A quotation from Kirkus Review on the back cover of my copy calls this book ‘quirky’. This is true, on different levels.
Perhaps the most distinctive formal feature is the deliberately excessive use of parentheses, as if the author has set herself the task of illustrating all the different purposes they can serve (clarifying an ambiguous pronoun, glossing an unusual word or phrase, explanation, qualification, specification of relationship, narrative digression, and so on), extending to the very title. It lends these essays an informal, conversational character – often marked by sudden changes of direction or swings of mood.
But the subject matter is highly unusual too. All the essays draw on Kincaid’s experiences as an amateur gardener but it is no more a book about gardening than Beyond a Boundary is about cricket. ‘What do they know of gardening who only gardening know?’ could easily be its epigraph. If it is eloquent on the ways in which the gardener can take delight in the ‘vexations and agitations’ of her craft, and on the impulses that attract her to some plants and repel her from others, My Garden (book) offers various historical and cross-cultural perspectives that make for uncomfortable and provocative reading.
She dwells – some might say perversely – on the quotidian details of buying and selling, underlining the broader economic networks in which she operates (including her own privilege as the owner of a large house in Vermont who can afford domestic help). Having grown up in the Caribbean she is keenly aware of how precious the aesthetic pleasures of the domestic garden are when set alongside the mercenary priorities of plantation agriculture on the one hand and the imperialist ‘botany thieves’ (and the Latin nomenclature they imposed) on the other.
There are few moments of tranquility here. Her reflections on Spring are punctuated by the killing (or fantasies of killing) rabbits, snakes, bugs and slugs, but the contradictions are sharpest in the longest essay in the book, ‘Plant Hunting in China’. As Kincaid describes the organized tour – her attention largely absorbed by the behaviour of her fellow-travellers, the unvarying diet of ‘pork, pork, pork, pork’, and the unsanitary conditions and practices she observes (and must herself occasionally endure) – she comes close to occupying the position of the tourist she famously despises in A Small Place. It certainly seems to confirm that she has now (as she puts it in another essay) ‘joined the conquering classes.’ And here perhaps any comparison with C L R James breaks down. But the book leaves us with much to reflect on.