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Book Review: ‘A Fig at the Gate’

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

November 29, 2014

‘A Fig at the Gate’ by Kate Llewellyn
‏Allen and Unwin 2014, RRP $29.99AUD, ‏ISBN 9781760110888
‏’The joys of friendship, gardening and the gaining of wisdom

‏This is a lovely book. It can shock at times too, with a brutal reality or painful memory that surfaces because of the author’s current circumstances. It reads like a diary but one that’s been reworked to give more depth and texture. Either that, or Kate Llewellyn is a lot more articulate, poetic and downright eloquent than I ever am in my private thoughts.

a-fig-at-the-gate-1‏It is also a book about gardening in both a practical and an emotional sense. To non-gardeners, I know that the world of gardening seems a quiet, uneventful, even boring affair. The seasons come and go. Plants flower, or they don’t. And so on.

‏To a real gardener, gardening is a rollercoaster, with the thrill of an unexpected success usually followed by the despair of failure, snatched from what, for a while, had seemed so promising. Visceral stuff and even heartbreaking, when so much time, work and expectation turns to nothing. Or elation when two out of ten of those recalcitrant blue poppy seeds actually sprout.

‏It is also a book about growing old, although Kate seems like a much younger women than her physical years. She labours hard in her garden, fetches supplies on her bike and even drags home unwanted bricks in her wheelie bin. But even while we are admiring (and envying!) her vigour, she also chronicles the loneliness of many of her generation, and the repeated losses – of friends as they die, of dignity, of personal freedoms, and even of sentience by some. This is serious stuff, but these observations are saved from melancholy by her celebration of resilience, and the important decades of memories that she and her contemporaries still have: of gardens, friendships, a glass of wine, the cool shade of a leafy vine and the pleasure of a luscious, ripe fig.

Ripe fig‏I think this book is also about learning to love being alone, while at the same time finding a renewed pleasure in the company of friends. There are human friends, but also birds, chickens, the ocean, the weather……and plants.

‏A Fig at the Gate follows Kate for five years as she builds a new garden in a new place. Moving from a cool-subtropical Australian east-coast garden to Adelaide, she learns by trial and error how to make a dry garden in a very dry place. She lives alone, although she has brothers not far away, and several friends from her nursing days many years before. You can tell that she thinks these decades-long friendships are a privilege, and for that alone I know I already like her.

‏”It’s getting dark at five o’clock. I take dinner on a tray to bed and enjoy myself. No one around to judge.”

‏She does frustrate me at times. Why so much experimentation without initial research? I feel her failures could often be avoided but then I acknowledge that I am just a different type of gardener; one who prefers to leave less to chance. Perhaps she learns more than I do through her trial and error but I felt sad for her lost chickens.

‏”Now it is clear why those two hens died of prolapse……..a new book called ‘Contented Chooks’…. says that too much bread gives poultry prolapse. I had been told that birds, even ducks on ponds, should not be fed bread.

Chooks‏I can’t share her love either of vegetable gardening, or of chooks, (although I suspect I’m in a decreasing minority on that) but her excellent writing meant I wanted to read about them anyway. But I do support her food security ideas – as we become increasingly dependent on industrial agriculture, what will happen to us if something happens to that? She remembers the migrants to Australia after WW2 and, after their experience of the famine brought by war, their purposeful growing of food to feed their families. We live here in Australia in prosperity and possibly naivety that this can never happen to us.

‏I also relate to her comments about fruit trees and gardening memories. She says:

“‏In the new gardens installed by the landscapers, again not one food plant is present. The elderly owners have left and the young ones with children are here. A plum tree, an apricot, any citrus would give the children free fresh food and memories of those trees all their lives.”

‏My parents had no fruit trees but our elderly neighbour did and I remember those orange and mandarin trees clearly and how she beat their trunks with a broom handle every year so they would bear more fruit. And I can still recall lying on the ground under the spreading shade of a backyard greengage plum and eating the fallen fruit with my school friend Jo until our stomachs hurt. I share Kate’s sadness that so many children are becoming adults without those sort of memories.

‏Her prose is lyrical and beautiful. There were times when she described her garden and I wanted a photograph to understand it better. What’s a garden book without pictures? But I’m glad she didn’t humour me with that as I realised I’ve become a bit lazy about a picture telling a thousand words and wanting it easy. I like the way she quietly expects that I should allow her to paint it for me with words instead. In the end, they resound much more loudly, echoing around in your head long after a quick glance at any image.

jacaranda-on-car2‏”Jacarandas in bloom show it’s exam time, with melting biros writing the answers.

‏”There is something about the vulnerability of slippers. A pair lying straight together pointing under a bed shows sweetly, humbly, the commonality of us all.

‏”Wild and grey outdoors, like an angry woman.

‏Oh and Kate writes poetry too. Here is how she describes the humble lemon:

“the acerbic aunt
of the orchard
beautiful in youth
yet growing thorny
in old age

‏And the ultimate explanation of what it is like to be alone, and a gardener:

‏”All day I discuss things with myself; arguing, tell myself off, say that I’m a fool. Impatient, accepting, resigned, it is a marriage of sorts. Then there is the idea of the garden and I am married to that too. Marrying a garden is more like young love. Seething with plans, full of hope. Willing to brook no opposition. Vision, visions. You don’t think of bushfire, flood and calamity. You go to it with open arms, and a spade perhaps, under your elbow.”

‏And Kate reminds us most forcefully – whatever your age, it is never too late to begin a garden, to make plans, and to plant a future.

I am sad that I’ve now finished this book and that I won’t hear more about the changing of Kate Llewellyn’s seasons. Buy this book for yourself or give it as a gift to anyone you know who delights in words, people and plants. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

★★★★★ (5 stars!)

‏I will now go and search out her two previous books: ‘The Waterlily‘ and ‘Playing With Water‘.
‏But please write another one, Kate.

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Amanda Mackinnon
9 years ago

Sounds like a good one. Must let Santa know I’d like a copy!