Friday, 21 March 2014

THE PHYSIC GARDEN by CATHERINE CZERKAWSKA reviewed by Valerie Laws

 
 This is a delicious, rich, fragrant casserole, a slow-cooking story stew, reducing gradually and becoming enriched with years, with lives, with observation, as a garden grows and adds layers of stalks, seeds and harvest, the cycles of life and death rolling with the seasons. But this doesn't mean that not much happens. This book is in the voice of William Lang (an appropriate last name in Scots!), and is an old man's reflection on his life, but his life has been lived at a time of great change, change which has had its effect on all of us.

It's about the fascinating history of medicine, the history of science, the history of gardens, and slow, small but significant changes in the class system. All these are brilliantly and carefully researched, but all are told as a human story - how the changes have an impact on ordinary lives, such as Lang's, and that of his mentor Thomas Brown, and the women, families and colleagues in their lives. Even the ivory towers of academe and the hortus conclusus of the Glasgow University Physic Garden can't keep out the wind of change, which inevitably causes tragic damage to some while bringing long-term benefit to many, as a gardener burns, uproots and prunes to make way for new growth.

This book has a special interest for me - I'm Writer in Residence at a present-day Physic Garden, and have had recent Residencies at Institutes of Anatomy and Pathology too, both of which have taught me much about these fields, and Czerkawska's book gave me a fascinating glimpse of what it must have been like to be around when these areas of learning were unfolding so dramatically. At a time of public executions, frequent violence and war, when life was cheap and precarious, when death and its aftermath were commonly seen, it's hard to grasp that so little was known of the human body, that even finding out about it was shocking, and yet without that risky voyage of discovery, most of our current medical knowledge would have remained hidden in mystery. The problem of getting bodies to learn on, at a time when a live person who was poor had virtually no value, is an irony starkly depicted here. 
 
William's life charts the gradual movement from ancient herbal knowledge originally shared via oral tradition by wise women (and men) in isolated cottages, to the great physic gardens of healing herbs owned by men (yes, men) of science connected to the older Universities; that is, the eventual switch from applied folklore based on 'it's always worked, we don't know why but it does' to the new voyage of discovery into human anatomy, how the body works, and therefore how and why certain medicines (mostly derived from plants) work, as modern medicine came into being with so many gains and some losses too. But this is history as it should be told, as a story, of how events change the lives of ordinary people, how hard it is to adapt as the world changes around you, and yet how the basic qualities that matter still stand.

It's about class, and education; how that education was the privilege of the rich, and how it divided people of equal ability but unequal wealth. William Lang and Thomas Brown are friends, though they are from different classes; William's background is of practical skill hard-won, which wins him a place among the privileged and learned in the Physic Garden, though he's never going to be one of them. It's a love story, William's great passion aside from plants, but it's also about friendship, and shocking betrayal. As so often today in scandals trumpeted by the media, a man of apparent nobility, good intention, wisdom and decency, can behave like a pig to women, and the feet of clay of his mentor and role model almost bring down William too. But it's not all tragedy, it's warm, and funny, and the full sensory experience of being in that old world, where the unknown was mixed up with religious feelings, when finding out how life works could seem blasphemous and indecent. I don't want to post spoilers so will not say more about the main thread of the narrative!

In The Physic Garden, we see how biology was destiny not only for women, but for men too. Catherine Czerkawska gets into the minds and bodies of our past, as the characters literally get into the minds and bodies of their fellow humans, and into the fertile and sometimes hostile elements of the earth; how they deal with what they learn, and the high price that learning exacts. In this superb story told by a writer who wears learning lightly but with respect, who can blend tragedy with humour, loss and survival, is a world we can inhabit for a time, a peep through the door into the walled garden of the past.

THE PHYSIC GARDEN IS AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK ON KINDLE UK or US and all other platforms, published by Saraband, and will also be available in paperback from March 27th.
CATHERINE CZERKAWSKA'S blog is HERE