The Physic Garden

 

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          ‘What am I afraid of? That a million thoughts, feelings, memories, will come rushing back to overwhelm me? I cannot begin to describe to you the terror - there is no other word for it - engendered by the thought of him, even now, and yet he was as kindly a man as you could wish to meet, one who inspired trust and friendship in equal measure, a man who inspired great love in all those who knew him. I used to think it an unmitigated blessing, used to envy him. But now, with the wisdom of my years, I realise that it can be a peculiar curse and a burden, to be a man whom people love.’

          The Physic Garden is the story of a close friendship and a betrayal so shocking that it pervades the whole novel, like the memory of a nightmare. As a young man, William Lang worked as a gardener at the old college of Glasgow University but he has spent most of his subsequent life as a printer and bookseller in the growing city of Glasgow. When the novel begins, in the mid 1800s, he is in his seventies, widowed and living with his grown-up family. He has just received a parcel containing a book called the Scots Gard’ner, as well as a handwritten journal. With these volumes comes a letter saying that they were left to him by Thomas Brown, a gentleman who has recently died at his country house in Ayrshire. So many years later, the unexpected legacy of the books reminds William of his youth when he and Thomas became unlikely friends. The memories come flooding back.

          Some of this is based on truth. There was a gardener in Glasgow called William Lang. There was a nineteenth century lecturer in botany at the old college of Glasgow University whose name was Thomas Brown. It is clear from surviving correspondence that the two men, who were not very far apart in years, struck up a friendship. It is also clear that Thomas valued the work William did in collecting plant specimens for him. Later, when William found himself struggling to cope with a polluted garden and the necessities of providing for a widowed mother and younger siblings, Thomas Brown helped him as far as he could. The printed books mentioned are real. But the rest is entirely fictional.

          ‘This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. I had such a feeling of emotional engagement and empathy for William Lang that it actually broke my heart a bit when the denouement was revealed. Yes it's true. I kept telling myself, it's only a story but WHAT a story. It is a beautiful, elegant, at times elegaic expression and exploration of betrayal. If you ever want an example of how writers can achieve great things without intervention – this is it.’ Cally Phillips, Reading Between The Lines

 

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