I may be stretching the truth only a little when I suggest that in days gone by mainstream literary publisher types dismissed this novel as ‘just an old man’s havers’. But dismiss it they did and it’s just another indication of the fact that ‘no one knows anything’ is all too prevalent in mainstream publishing.
Here in the world of indie publishing I DO know something and I believe I can spot good writing and a great novel when I see one. That’s why I write reviews, to share this knowledge with you, the potential reader. And for my money, if there was any justice in the world I reckon The Physic Garden would (and should) win the Orange Prize for Fiction – or similar.
I have read a lot of Catherine Czerkawska’s output over the past year (and known her for many years) but believe me my comments on The Physic Garden would stand whoever had written it. Knowing the writer and some of the ‘history’ around the non publication of it, I feel confident in stating that it has become clear to me that while some writers may well need editing, other writers write best when unfettered by the constraints of the mainstream demands and fashions. Catherine is clearly one of these writers. As a longstanding professional she is more than capable of structural editing and with developing confidence I hope that she will finally realise that work such as The Physic Garden is not in the bestsellers list purely because they are served by marketplace fashion rather than by any real understanding of what makes good novels.
This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. It’s reminiscent to me of The Mill on the Floss and Tess of the D’Urbevilles BUT it’s better because I cheered when the Tullivers were drowned they annoyed me so much and however much I know I should have sympathy for Tess I just want to give her a slap and tell her to grow up. In constrast I had such a feeling of emotional engagement and empathy for William Lang that it actually broke my heart a bit when the denoument 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 time elegaic expression and exploration of betrayal.
And the construction is so great too. In the beginning it seems incredible to the reader that William can have much of a secret, and one cannot imagine what the ‘betrayal’ which caused the lack of friendship would be. I guess it’s at this point that the superficial reader would dismiss the story as ‘an old man’s havers.’ It may be an old man’s havers. If so, what havers. And actually, what we have is yes, an old man, but he’s telling the story of his life, so it’s not ‘old’ in any sense at all. Perhaps the combination of an old man looking back on his life in a historically distant time is too much for the superficial reader? But the skill with which Czerkawska keeps the reader on the hook, getting right to the end of their tether asking ‘why’ and ‘what’ and ‘how’ (active engagement in such questions is a great way to draw an audience through a story in much more depth than simply feeding them a plot which answers specific questions at every small step of the way) and one has a constant unease because one realises it must be something really bad if William is still so obsessed with Thomas even all these years on. And yet, the old man William, how can he have any really dark secret? We are played with in the best way possible. It’s not a ‘thriller’ but it keeps you asking questions and so keeps you engaged.
Then, we find out part of the reason. And it’s shocking. And sympathy with William is firmly established. However, one still can dismiss William (the young William) as simply being too ‘moral’ for the world he finds himself in and conclude that he’s bound to be let down by Thomas – but you’ve still only got a small part of the whole story under your belt. There’s so much more. One becomes as obsessed with finding the answers in the story as William is with Thomas. That is really clever writing.
There is so much domesticity that one is completely tricked into thinking the ‘bad’ thing will have to be small and William’s response will have to be over-reaction. You think? Czerkawska pulls us along towards some truly grim and awful resolutions and even when you think you’ve cracked the ‘why’s’ they suddenly become less important. When you know why there is still more. It’s not just about the reasons. It’s about the effects. It’s a deep study of betrayal and how that impacts over a lifetime. I was being manipulated by the writer all the way along in the best of ways. I felt like Czerkawska was completely in control of her story and that I was privileged to have it fed out to me in the way it was. No editor could have done a better job, believe me. This is writing from the heart and with the skill of a lifetime’s experience as a creative individual.
The history is also very interesting. There’s plenty of wee gems of information regarding gardening and publishing – the impact of the printworks on the garden is a very clever and very powerful image throughout and works on the reader on a subliminal level to show the connectedness of things which otherwise one dismisses as quite diverse.
But most of all I have to commend the power of the writing which can get a reader to care so much (about an old man’s havers.) When the denoument is finally revealed and it all comes crashing down around the reader’s head, Czerkawska is not finished. She has consideration for the bombshell she has dropped and gives us time to fully get to grips with what’s happened by the final section which patiently explains life ‘after’ the end and pulls all those questions together and leads to understanding. This section contains the most eloquent and deep exegesis of betrayal I think I’ve ever read. It touched me deeply. And it got me thinking about betrayal in a whole new light. Which again has be great for a novel – it connected directly with my lived experience. It’s a novel written by a very good writer and written for readers. It may not have passed through the filter of mainstream editors but I think it’s all the more powerful for that. This is truly an ‘authored’ piece and the committee work a publishing company looking for that elusive ‘bestseller’ would have destroyed it. If you ever want an example of how writers can achieve great things without intervention – this is it. This is as good (and better) a novel as many I have read, including classics. But what do I know – after all, this review would be dismissed by the mainstream as just an old woman’s havers wouldn’t it?
The Physic Garden is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Catherine Czerkawska.
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