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James Hamilton-Paterson: Griefwork

Leon is the curator of the Palm House, shortly after World War II, in an unnamed Northern European city. The city had been occupied by the Nazis and, somehow, Leon had managed to preserve the Palm House. Now, after the war, the government wants the land for development. Leon is, in some respects, like the Elgar of Gerontius, a loner, an artist who feels he has not had his due and who has survived a difficult period. Hamilton-Paterson chooses to show us Leon by giving us his story, growing up by the sea and in tune with nature. He was the son of a fisherman and, as a teenager, his skills were recognised and fostered by a naturalist. He falls in love with the daughter of the naturalist’s Asian servant and though he never sees her again, after the naturalist leaves at the end of the summer, he does not forget her. But it is nature that interests Leon and Hamilton-Paterson. Leon has been so in tune with nature that he talks to the birds and now, in his Palm House, he can talk to the plants and they can talk back. Indeed, they act something like a Greek chorus, commenting on the world and on Leon. It could be silly – and let’s not forget that Hamilton-Paterson has written children’s fiction – but it more or less works, if we remember that Hamilton-Paterson flirts with magic realism in this and other of his works. It all ends rather unhappily, though not necessarily in the way we might have expected, but it is still a tale well told, something of a fairy tale or fantasy in a realistic framework and one that works.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Jonathan Cape