Monday 25 November 2019

In the Garden of Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey

Don't let me mislead you into thinking that In the Gardens of the Fugitives is a book about gardening, food and recipes, even though I'm going to start with a recipe. 

Apparently one of the food items uncovered during the excavations of Pompeii, was a medallion of ham flavoured with bay leaves and fig slices. Normally a mere reference to a meal in a book wouldn't be enough to have me scrambling for recipes, except this week the Christmas ham has been on my mind.

I have a lovely recipe for a marmalade, dijon mustard & whole clove glaze that I inherited from a beloved aunt, that has been my go-to for the past decade. I'm not sure that family tradition will allow me to mess with this on Christmas Day, but I'm now dead keen to try the Pompeian version at some point. Boiling a ham and wrapping it pastry isn't my usual thing though (which seems to be how the Ancients preferred their ham), so I've found an online recipe that tweeks these old flavours by basically swapping them out with my usual ingredients. 

It looks a little something like this:

1 whole, cooked leg of ham
about 16 bay leaves
about 30 whole dried figs (I might even experiment with fresh figs in the autumn)

1 cup smooth fig jam
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons dry English mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

The idea being to insert half a bay leaf into the scored sections of the ham, as one would the cloves, then cover with the glaze. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the dried or fresh figs to the juice in the bottom of the pan for about 15 mins.

To finish it off the meal, à la Romaine, float rose petals in one's glass of wine.

Sounds delish!
The flip side of feasting is death. The ancients had always understood that. A banquet is life in miniature. You arrive hungry, eat and drink your fill, make merry, then go to sleep. All feasts, all lives, must come to an end. Death, tugging your ear, says: Live, I am coming.

AD 45-79 | Still-life wall panel from the House of the Chaste Lovers |
Cockerel pecking at pomegranates, figs, and pears.
Okay, so how did we end up in Pompeii talking about figs and ham and rose petals?

I haven't read Dovey's first novel, Blood Kin, but I did read and adore her kookier second story collection, Only the Animals. This collection felt like an emerging writer still playing around with what kind of writer she wanted to be. The stories were fun and clever but they also showed that Dovey had some bigger ideas that she was prepared to play with. In the Garden of the Fugitives the writing and style felt more assured and the themes more autobiographical. It feels like she has now arrived as a fully-fledged writer.

Dovey explores, via a letter writing regime between the older mentor figure with regrets, Royce, and the younger, lost soul, Vita, themes of obsession, confession and atonement. As she says early on journeys need a point; a narrative arc. Both narrators, the letter writers, have very distinct voices and stories that intersect at times.

They are both lonely and seem to be overtaken by various forms of guilt, melancholia and nostalgia. Vita's story is more a coming-of-age one, whilst Royce is looking back on his life from his deathbed. Vita is still searching for a place or space to belong, whereas Royce spent his life trying to find someone to belong to. Neither of them ever seemed to feel at home in themselves.

Each and every one us contains a whole world of suffering.

Royce's voice sounded cultivated and charming. He was clearly educated and erudite. His letters were searching, teasing, insidious even. Vita's voice was more confronting. Harsh at times, sometimes cruel and to-the-point, she was often cool and distant. Their letter writing attempts to reinterpret, revise and reassess how they got to where they currently are. We all have a story to tell; and that story evolves with each retelling.

They both shared complex relationships with place. For Royce, place was caught up in how he felt about the people within the spaces. He said that it is impossible to experience a place like Pompeii outside the prism of your own desires. And certainly for Royce experiencing anything, including human relationships, outside the prism of his desires would be nigh on impossible. He had the emotional range typical of most narcissists.

However, his stories about his time in Pompeii, excavating the site known as the garden of fugitives, with his first obsession, Kitty, were utterly compelling. I could have had a whole story just about this time in Italy. 

Once you can inspect your own history like an artifact, you're a step closer to liberating yourself from it.

It took me a while to warm to Vita's story, even though I have shared many of her feelings of confusion about belonging. Perhaps it was the distance at which she liked to keep people, even her readers. Vita was often hamstrung by indecision, doubt and guilt. Her relationships reflected this muddle.  

One of the places that Vita was trying to fit into was Mudgee, NSW. The town I called home for 18 years. Naturally I was curious to hear what Dovey, via Vita, had to say about it.

To people just passing through, Mudgee is charming. The town's quaint sandstone buildings and wide streets, and, further out, the wineries and orchards in perfect rows, the shaded paths along the Cudgegong River. The natural beauty of the surroundings blinds most casual visitors to the town's unexpected strangeness, its schizoid social self. Itinerant labourers, gentleman farmers, amateur winemakers, corporate wine overseers, fly-in-fly-out mine workers, tree-changers, bogans, all bumping up against one another. 
There's the cheap cafe serving pies next to a hipster cafe serving artisanal brews. The old shitty pub with greasy carpets and pokies beside an organic wine bar. The farmers' market displays vegetables with authentically soiled roots and handmade cheese, but the explosions from the coal mines ringing the valley regularly destroy the peace. 
I fit in here because I, too, am caught between identities.

I suspect these comments are true of most small towns in Australia. Especially those that attract visitors and weekenders from the bigger cities around them. Mudgee is definitely one of those towns. But I lived there for a long time and never heard the sound the explosions from the coal mine at Ulan. Although it's quite possible that her character, living amongst the wineries on an olive farm, was on the Ulan side of town. Her descriptions made me think of the hills out past the cemetery and airport, on the way to the mines. Perhaps from there you could hear the blasts.

However a big part of Vita's story was about South Africa. She was born there, but her parents moved to Australia when she was young. She inherited not only their white guilt about Apartheid, but she suffered from her own version of guilt. Her time with a counsellor with an interesting excursion into
political will, individual culpability and responsibility. She not only reflected on the injustices and generational effects of Apartheid, but also the Australian colony experience, American slavery, Germany & the Holocaust. 

One comment struck me in particular, as I was able to relate it to the current debates around climate change politics. I hear many Gen Z's talking about climate change with a similar refrain. 

It wasn't me, I shouldn't have to feel responsible for decisions I didn't make. This way of thinking can lead to the false conviction that the injustices of the present are similarly outside your influence, that things will remain the same regardless of what you do or don't do.

I also learnt about psychohistorians. I didn't even know it was a thing, but learning about the 'why' of history and examining the differences between stated intentions and actual events sounds exactly like something I'd like to explore further.

The rallying cry of psychohistorians is that history repeats itself because of the propulsive effects of humiliation....They believe that the traumatised country, like the traumatised individual, has a psyche that is fractured. It has an unconscious. It buries painful memories, It indulges wishful fantasies through national myths....The Germans have developed an entire vocabulary and classification system for the different kinds of guilt suffered by different generations.

There's a whole lot of stuff about archaeology and Pompeii and Royce's reasons for feeling guilty and remorseful, that I haven't gone into here. Both Kate & Lisa explore these angles further, if you're interested. Like both Kate & Lisa, In the Garden of Fugitives will be added to my best books of 2019 list.

Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best review.
Lisa @ANZLit Lovers review.

Favourite Quote:
Not one of the wise elders whose path I was privileged to cross in my years there ever said to me: No human being should have to go through life alone; do everything you can to find your person, the one who makes it bearable, the one who will love you back. Or everything else will be for naught anyway.


  1. Oh man, that glaze with the figs sounds amazing. I may have to give this a try. I know what you mean about messing with tradition. Our Christmas ham is glazed with a bourbon & red currant jelly mixture. I also plan on seeing if my library has this book.

    1. Ohhh I can feel a whole blog post coming on about Christmas ham glazes!

  2. We visited Pompeii this pst September so I really enjoyed your post.

  3. I've never read much about how the Romans cured hams -- I wonder if they were similar to the ones done today. Bay leaves and figs (both fresh and made into jam) sound like a very good flavor combination with ham. I need to find out more about the foods found in Pompeii.

    best... mae at

    1. There are numerous sites featuring the food of Pompeii, but the ham recipe seems to involve boiling it for a long time steeped in the figs and bay leaves. It is then wrapped in pastry and popped in the oven. Boiled ham doesn't appeal to me, and I'm not a big fan of pastry either (I know, there's something wrong with me according to everyone else I know!!) which Is why I didn't feature the traditional recipe.

  4. I enjoyed this one. A writer on my must read list.

  5. I like the last paragraph about psychohistory (I skipped the paras about cooking ham). I agree that societies exhibit psychological symptoms. The Germans dealt with guilt and seem much healthier for it. Indigenous societies as a whole exhibit all the symptoms of severe depression. White Australia will go nowhere while it denies its guilt about Aborigines and refugees, and in fact, denial may lead to things getting worse before they get better - there are lots of indications that Australia is on its way to becoming a fully blown police state.


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