‘The first time I saw Jenny Caddas she was taking a swarm of bees.’
It’s a great feeling when you fall in love with a book on the first page, or even the first line, and that’s what happened to me with The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska. The voice is that of William Lang, speaking in 1802. But if the scene he describes is idyllic, we soon know that this is not to last. William, now an old man, is going to tell us how from this fine beginning, everything went wrong. In fact things are already going wrong, because the Physic Garden, owned by Glasgow University and where William will soon be head gardener, is already in decline polluted by the expanding type foundry, trampled on by marauding students (plus ca change!) and largely ignored by a medical faculty hooked on the new science of anatomy. But amongst the professors there is one exception, Thomas Brown, a botany lecturer, with whom William strikes up an unlikely and life-changing friendship.
William’s story is an essentially private one of an old man seeing how in his younger days he was too naïve, but still cannot entirely regret that naivety. But as in the best historical fiction the individual becomes a prism through which we view the whole place and time in which he lived. We feel the pressures on a young man suddenly becoming the bread-winner for his large family, his anger at a feckless sister, his concern over a sickly child, his hero-worship of his fine new friend. On a wider scale we see his disquiet at the apparent supremacy of surgery over physiological remedies and the new forms of sickness and poverty arriving in the wake of industrialisation. We also glimpse the radicalism he will embrace in his later life.
But mostly this is a book about friendship and although the romance hinted at in the first line plays a part, William knows there are more enduring forms of love. He reflects most of all on how he and Thomas Brown forged a bond that transcended social boundaries but broke apart too violently ever to be mended.
The pace is measured, the language has an elegiac quality, but this is not a pretty story. It is beautiful and sad with just a touch of the macabre. It also contains the seeds of hope and of William’s eventual redemption. True to the form of an old man, our narrator thinks nothing of jumping forward or back in the story to explain something, or just to delay the parts that pain him the most. But this book is all about the voice, and once William had my ear, I was never going to stop listening.
One day I might think about how this book achieves what it does, but for now I’m just going to sit back and admire it.