Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska

Review by Bill Kirton

Catherine Czerkawska happens to be a friend but she’s also a talented, dedicated, thoroughly professional author who (I think) has a good readership but who deserves an even bigger one. None of that information is relevant to my reading of and response to this book, however, because from the earliest pages I was drawn in by the character of the first person narrator, a 19th century Scottish gardener, William Lang. The author folds narrative layers together so that, through his own words as he recounts his life, we learn of his loves, his sorrows, the demands of his job and  family, and above all, the pain of one huge central betrayal. And yet, at the same time, we’re able to warm to him as an attractive, highly sympathetic character. He’s not flawless, he’s sometimes quick-tempered and gauche and his naivety about some aspects of life opens him to disappointments which might well have been avoided.

All the time, though, his voice, that of an old man recalling incidents from early boyhood, adolescence, manhood and his present as a grandfather, is consistent. It’s a tour de force on the part of the female author who disappears entirely inside her character.

The narrative seems always to be in a present, but it’s a changing one: the present of his time helping his father, who tended the physic garden at Glasgow University; his apprenticeship and eventual appointment as his father’s successor; his friendship with a young professor; the birth and growth of his love for his Jenny; the excruciating pain of the denouement; and then the quiet satisfactions of his later years. The narrative’s leisurely pace fits the subject well because his time is spent in his beloved garden or roaming the countryside looking for botanical specimens. Plants can’t be hurried and he relishes their colours, shapes and perfumes, uses his poetic gift to convey such things as honeysuckle’s ‘buttery tangle in all the hedgerows’. Indeed, the world of trees and plants informs all his thinking.

But when the authorities in their ignorance build a type foundry next to the gardens, the polluting intrusions of the ‘unnatural’ world (my word, not his) begin to stifle the plants, cover their life and beauty with a corrupting film of filth. His story thus becomes that of the shifting perspectives of the 19th century from the rural idylls of the Romantics to urbanisation, from the innocence of the natural world to the inhumanity of the industrial revolution.

But all the while that William is leading us through these experiences, he keeps reminding us of some ominous event which crushed him, destroyed his faith and trust in the world he knew so well. The mystery of this event is brilliantly handled. In the middle of some lively sequence, he’ll pause, reflect briefly on a pain he carries without explaining it at first. Then, progressively, through other ‘asides’, we learn of its source, although we still have no idea what it might be. The author even uses his granddaughter to deepen the mystery. She comes into William’s room as he’s writing so we’re suddenly faced with a different character, one leading a life clearly separated from the one he’s just been describing.

As well as the tensions and conflicts generated in William himself, there are those in the outside world. There’s the coexistence of the garden and the factory, of course, but there’s also a more subtle one in the actual seat of learning where he works. On the one hand there are studies in botany with all that implies about life and growth, but they’re directly contrasted with a subject such as anatomy, which relies on death and dissection. This, to William, is anathema and it colours his perceptions of the professors who teach the separate disciplines until, as an old man, he begins to recognise that both disciplines are necessary, a thought which sets him speculating about some of his own attitudes over the years.

The settings in which the whole story takes place are perfectly realised. Everything about the narrative reminds us that we’re with him in the 19th century. And yet, in connection with the academic theme, there are some delightful indicators of modern observations. The students get drunk and rampage through his garden, causing lots of damage, but it’s his observations on the professors and teachers that suggest some attitudes and opinions still prevail. ‘If these people were, by some miracle of transposition, to be precipitated into the real world, the world outside those venerable walls,’ he writes, ‘ I am convinced that they could never survive.’ And again, ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, many of the professors considered the students to be wholly undesirable, a necessary evil, an inconvenient interruption to the real business of scholarship.’


So, in these and other observations and especially in the character and presence of William, there’s a lot of warmth and pleasure in reading the story.  It’s a very human tale, beautifully written, written with love and yet, when two of its themes come together towards the end, the effect is devastating. It has the spareness and intensity of a classical tragedy. In short, it’s a great novel.