I am generally reticent about writing book reviews. However, when the first couple of critiques I read online are comedically scathing, my interest is piqued. Can a book really be that awful, or is it the reviewers that I should call into question? I must judge for myself.
Having received my copy of The Kinfolk Garden*, and after reading it from cover to cover in a couple of sittings, I can confirm it’s the other reviewers that I would have to challenge: this is a beautifully produced, original volume; light on text but imbued with style and perfectly in touch with the zeitgeist. Definitely worth a place in The Watch House library.
The Kinfolk Garden is certainly a different kind of book about plants, nature and design. It’s not a gardening book in any sense (this seems to be the principal objection of mealy-mouthed reviewers who must have been expecting a reference book); it’s a collection of short stories about people whose lives have been enhanced by a relationship with plants, gardens or landscapes. We should all be able to relate to them, despite the diversity of their interests and enterprises. I suspect those reviewers who claim the book is ‘vacuous’ or ‘superficial cosmetic pretence’ (here TFG smirks at how angry some people can get about a pretty book) did not bother to read the copy or acquaint themselves with some of the quietly remarkable characters who feature. Yes, one can establish at first glance that this is a book that might sail close to the wind when it comes to style over substance, but by being original and diverse in the choice of subject matter, The Kinfolk Garden definitely brings something new to the (coffee) table.
I have a great many books about plants, gardens and nature, thousands of them probably, yet I can count on one hand those that are illustrated with photographs of people in their beloved environments. The Kinfolk Garden does so with aching style, as you’d expect from any Scandinavian lifestyle ‘authority’. Florists, garden designers, artists, craftsmen and community activists are shown in carefully composed shots, each of which appears to have been captured at the end of a perfect day, just as the light fades from white to gold. Herein lies my first small complaint: although flattering to skin tones and buildings, this bleached-out, sepia-infused filtration renders greens flat and dull, sometimes almost brownish. As a celebrant of green in all it’s generous vivacity, I find it hard to see green tones reduced to bottle, lime and olive. The photographs are beautiful and harmonious, but by the time you get halfway through, they all start to look quite similar. Since I have started, I may as well reveal my second niggle now: between each of the chapters – Care, Creativity and Community – there is an unnecessary segment of ‘tips’, the literary equivalent of a TV Ad break. These sections aren’t pretty, they are not particularly enlightening, and they provide an excuse for grumpy reviewers to claim that this is trying to be a gardening book. Kinfolk started out as a magazine and it’s as if they feel it’s necessary to remind us of that with these ‘articles’. My advice is to skip over them and pretend they were never there.
One of the greatest joys of The Kinfolk Garden is that it represents a moment in time, not quite to the extent that the dreaded C word is mentioned, but in that many of the protagonists are entirely ‘of the moment’. Whether it’s Julius Værnes Iversen with ‘alien’ floral installations, Sourabh Gupta making exquisite paper plants for friends who can’t keep the real thing alive, or Kristian Skaarup and Livia Haaland farming on a Copenhagen rooftop, these are creatives and visionaries on the edge of what’s happening in our world right now. Whether one likes what they’re doing or not, I think we should all be interested in them. Those characters who are not breaking new ground in the same sense, appear to have been chosen because they are timeless, exceptional and perhaps a little underrated. I was delighted to see the Parisian landscape gardener Camille Muller peering out from these pages, having encountered one of his beautiful creations in Madagascar many years ago. Also to read more about Luciano Giubbilei, a garden maker who operates on a higher plane, often investing many years in the development of a design for his clients. I had never heard of perfumer Abderrazak Benchaâbane, the man who helped Yves Saint Lauren restore Jardin Majorelle before founding the Palemerai Museum in Marrakech, yet his story is a remarkable and important one. If you’ve not grasped already, The Kinfolk Garden is also a book that celebrates diversity without needing to point a finger at it. I may well have a handful of books illustrated with photographs of people, but I could count those that aren’t dominated by the white, middle or upper classes on ….. well …… one finger.
So, bravo to you, Kinfolk, for publishing a book that’s a little bit different, good to look at and easy for us time-deprived folk to consume: it’s a time capsule in the making and a welcome relief from the conveyor belt of ‘how to ……’ and ‘gardens of ……’ books that appear every year. Sadly you’ve made this volume so pretty that lazy folk can’t see beyond the gorgeous, hazy, sun-soaked photography. Let them write ill-informed reviews and know that smart, intelligent people will find richness in these stylish pages. TFG
*Please note that I was sent a copy of this publication free of charge for review purposes. To find out more about this publication, or to purchase a copy, pop over to the Kinfolk website.
Do let me know if you enjoy my book reviews or not. I could write a whole lot more, but if you’d prefer I stuck to gardens and gardening, I can do that too! TFG.