The Victory Garden

Written by Rhys Bowen
Review by Judith Starkston

Set in England during the final stretch of the First World War, The Victory Garden focuses on Emily Bryce, a naïve but headstrong, upper-class woman who is determined to do more for the war effort than her stifling, snobbish parents will permit. A handsome Australian flyer both prods her into action and wins her heart. Emily signs up to work as a “land girl” to help the farmers produce enough food to feed the nation while the men are away fighting. But this is wartime, and nothing will be easy—not the job nor the course of true love.

Bowen adds a fascinating layer to this tale of wartime love and rebellion. Emily discovers journals from a long-ago medicine woman and feels a growing connection to her and to another woman who found and used the journals. Through applying the journals’ insights and recipes for herbal cures, she finds a more meaningful place for herself in the world, but also grave danger. Superstitions against women healers, often identified in the past as witches, haven’t gone away, even if the terminology and excuses for accusations against them have changed. But if women must endure male suspicions, they also share bonding and strength in female friendships.

Bowen has created subtle depth of theme and character by layering in women from multiple generations, ranging from the far past to the novel’s present moment in WWI. The echoes in their stories give the novel an enjoyable fairy tale or allegorical feel towards the end as the plot strands fall into place. Bowen’s masterful weaving of these tales builds a nuanced, thematic portrayal of the inherent strengths of women and the male hackles such power can raise.