Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

A deep red cover is illustrated in beige with twining roses, full of blooms and thorns. The title works into the top and the author's name at the bottom.

One of the pleasures of reading Orwell’s Roses is its unexpected turns from one subject to the next. – NPR

by Kristen B.

Do you enjoy tangential conversations? Where you’re not sure how you discussed so many things in one sitting? Have I got a book for you! Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit contains loosely connected essays that meander through several subjects. She recounts her global travels and wide-ranging interests, examining them all through the lens of George Orwell and his love of green and growing things. Every section starts with a variation of the sentence, “In 1936, a writer planted roses.”

Of course, the writer in question is Orwell himself, who planted a garden that contained roses at the rural cottage where he and his wife were living. The biographical bits about him include his family’s privileged background, its more recent impoverished status, his early life in India and Burma, and his latter life retreat to the remote, Scottish island of Jura. His dedication to socialist causes led him to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, fighting against Franco. His was seriously injured, and the entire experience informed much of his early writing. Orwell suffered his entire life from weak lungs, complicated by his time in both sub-tropical countries and a period spent destitute in Spain. He eventually died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. He left a legacy of prescient writing, decrying the evils of totalitarianism, but he considered his gardens and roses equally important, as revealed in some of his journalism.

Solnit’s chapters move among these facts, linking them with socialism, coal mining, art in Mexico, Soviet politics, and the rose-growing industry in modern Colombia. She actually travels to Bogota and finagles a rare tour of a flower factory. Another chapter discusses British portraitist Joshua Reynolds and Orwell’s family pedigree, which connects to anti-colonial discourse about the Empire’s reliance on Caribbean sugar and its slave economy. Which, in turn, returns her to the notion of “genteel nature,” where the wealthy and titled classes had their fashions evolve from structured, manicured gardens to more relaxed, wild cottage gardens. At the same time, she considers how the ancient custom of holding land in common disappeared with the advent of enclosure laws and how that affected lower classes. This, in turn, returns her thoughts to Orwell and his roses.

The entire book reads in this sort of overlapping, interleaved, circular fashion: much, I suppose, in the manner of rose petals. It’s all interesting, and I enjoyed the interwoven ideas. But it does seem a little disjointed at times. While Orwell and roses act as the connective threads, the book serves more as a social and historical review of certain strains of thought. I am not a regular reader of nonfiction. The ever-changing discussion worked in my favor, as there was always something new just a few pages away. It also inspired me to put both Orwell and Solnit on my future reading lists.

Orwell’s Roses is available from HCLS in book format and also as an e-book and e-audiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball in season (but not all at the same time).

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