A Map of the Gardens by Gillian Mears

‘Not even the old dog likes Alyssa, the second wife.’

In this collection of eleven short stories published in 2002, Gillian Mears explores illness and death. She also explores transitions through different life phases: the strong become weak, frail as Ms Mears herself did in her battle with multiple sclerosis before her death in 2016.
I read these stories slowly, sure that I was missing aspects of the messages contained within but certain that each story needed to be read more than once. My favourite story, on this first reading, was ‘The Friendship Garden’:

‘The day of the Friendship Garden’s virtual end, Muriel came into the kitchen as if she’d never gone silly.’

Muriel Reilly, suffering from dementia, is blessed with a lucid day. And on that day, with her husband Ron’s help, she removes plants from her garden. These were plants she’d accepted (it was a friendship garden) but no longer enjoyed or perhaps in some cases never liked at all. Muriel’s friendship garden had become a burden, a trap, an overwhelming obligation. How many of us become trapped in similar ways?

My least favourite story was ‘Sad Quarrion’. Dr Pagent Took may love his trees, but it is not enough. I am uncomfortable in his story. He may be trapped, but I feel no empathy for him or his situation. It’s my least favourite story because of the way it makes me feel, not because it is told any less well than the other stories in this collection. Ms Mears had a gift for developing an extraordinary story from what are sometimes quite ordinary situations.

I will reread these stories in future, but not yet. I want to read Ms Mears’s other collections of short stories first, and I’ve yet to read ‘The Mint Lawn’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith