Alternating among letters, logs, account books, and what could quite possibly be a newly discovered diary, Barron plunges us into dual worlds, skewering history and reinventing the last days of famed 20th-century novelist Virginia Woolf. In the weeks before her body was discovered, did Virginia perhaps seek solace at the vast and beautiful Sissinghurst Castle, the home of her longtime lover, Vita Sackville-West?
American landscape designer Jo Bellamy finds herself pulled into the investigation after spending the last months coming to terms with her grandfather Jock’s death. Jock
chose to hang himself rather than face Jo after her announcement of a trip to Kent to model Sissinghurst’s famous White Garden for her wealthy client - and lover - Graydon Westlake.
Jock’s life was somehow turned upside down by secrets and half truths. Jo is desperate to unlock the secrets behind her grandfather’s letter left on
a three-by-five block of steno sheets that tells of the “Lady back home" and Jock’s life as an apprentice gardener at Sissinghurst Castle.
Traveling to the English countryside, Jo begins to uncover many clues to Jock’s ambivalence and his final days at Knole, the great estate where he grew up. In spite of her reservations, Imogen Cantwell, the head gardener at Sissinghurst, offers to help Jo when they both discover an old copybook of Jock’s in the tool shed. Its yellowed pages suggest it was written in the spring of 1941 in what are clearly the fragments of strange script swirling across the fragile pages. The book, possibly an attempt at fiction or an account of something else, tells of a woman who feels haunted to the point of drowning herself and a woman who escaped fear.
While Jo sees the diary as a way to “bring the white garden home,” cosmopolitan Peter Llewellyn seduces Jo as he draws on a wealth of knowledge and expertise of which he could have only the barest idea. Peter’s ex-wife, the glamorous Margaux Strand, a specialist in Virginia Woolf,
snatches at the “shabby little book as though it were a talisman and a gift from
beyond the grave."
Jo and Peter battle Imogen and Margaux, even Graydon Westlake, who tacitly plays a high-stakes game while Jo and Peter trail around the countryside with bits and pieces of clues, their search culminating in a hole in Leonard Woolf’s back garden.
Self-deception remains a powerful tool for survival in this novel as Jo battles her loyalties to Graydon and her romantic feelings for Peter, along with Margaux’s
sly manipulations and Imogen, who wants to replace the missing notebook in the miscellaneous box in the tool shed before The Family notices that it’s gone. Better yet, Imogen privately plots to present it casually as a discovery of her own.
Although these characters are mostly scribes to hurry along the author’s plot
remplete with rumors of a German advance, blackout nights, and hints of spies, Barron duly translates the questions around Virginia and whether she really did suicide as history dictates. Modern-day sleuthing
meshes into an account of might-have-been as The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf unfurls the tragic life of a terribly tortured middle-aged woman who saw a dark future on the bank of the River Ouse
and struggled with her ability to change it.