Book review: Stop and smell George Orwell's roses of resistance

Orwell's Roses, a collection of essays, is split in a vaguely thematic way. PHOTOS: TRENT DAVIS BAILEY, GRANTA

Orwell's Roses

By Rebecca Solnit
Non-fiction/Granta Books/Hardcover/298 pages/$38.19/Available here
4 out of 5

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet - or would it not?

American writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit takes a rose and cultivates it in many ways, from which blossom unexpected meditations on climate change, colonialism, the exploitation of labour and beauty as a source of resistance.

The inspiration for her musings? A few roses that English novelist George Orwell planted in his garden in Wallington, Hertfordshire, that she had read about when she was 20, and which she visits at the start of the book.

This nondescript act of gardening by Orwell, best known for political writings such as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), put down roots in her head and spawned this meandering, absorbing read.

Its writing style hews to what is arguably the book's central thesis: that a horizontal, associative way of thinking is not only more productive than people might believe, but also necessary to living and productivity.

Orwell's Roses, a collection of essays, is split in a vaguely thematic way, with information about Orwell's life and works discreetly sprinkled throughout.

A section covering his decision to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, tackles revolutionaries' hope, and people's need, for "both bread and roses" - basic necessities, but also the intangibles of life, music, education, nature and books.

Another on Orwell's decision to not write under his birth name, Eric Blair, in a bid to distance himself from his slave-owning ancestors, discusses how the apparent beauty of roses can sometimes hide ugliness.

The section freewheels from plantations in Jamaica to the calico roses of Ralph Lauren apparel, with Solnit connecting them in her trademark wandering style.

"I don't know how we knew that (Ralph Lauren designs) were not just about roses and flowers and fabric, but about country houses and heritage and status," she writes. "But paradise is a walled garden, defined in part by what it shut out."

But the most impressive chapters are the ones that deal with what it means to be productive in today's world. Though Solnit does not neglect Orwell's major works, she focuses more on his domestic diary entries, which are sometimes no more than inventories of flowers he finds interesting.

For the prolific writer, she posits, gardening was not a retreat from the world, but a method for him to remain in it. For every "serious" essay, he wrote one in tribute to the toad or one in defence of English cooking.

By seeing beauty in the mundane, Orwell could inure himself to the violence of totalitarianism while aspiring for the world to be as beautiful as his roses, all the time praying that the flowers - and his vision of justice - will endure.

By the end of the book, one comes to realise that roses are very apt metaphors for the duality of life: both beautiful and ugly, lasting and fleeting.

The only way to keep life as people know it is to both plant roses and value their meaning, and Solnit in her final sentence makes an appeal: "The work he did is everyone's job now. It always was."

If you like this, read: The Overstory by Richard Powers (Hutchinson, 2018, $30.94, Books Kinokuniya), an ecological novel in which the fates of nine strangers intertwine as a result of an ancient tree, changing how they - and readers - see nature.

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