THE GARDENER by Salley Vickers

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I was introduced to Salley Vickers’ writing in 2006 by my lovely friend Jane. I was about to set off to Venice for the first time on my own; I’d been there before with others. I must read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel, set in Venice, Jane told me and lent me her copy. I loved the book so much that after I’d given Jane her copy back I just had to buy my own copy. (I remember having a discussion with another book editor years ago who also felt a need to possess a book she’d read and liked a lot; do people other than book editors feel this need for possession!) Then I took to lending Miss Garnet’s Angel to others setting off to Venice –  ‘You must read this,’ I told them.

Since then I’ve read many other Salley Vickers’ books. I loved The Other Side of You and Mr Golightly’s Holiday but some of her later books didn’t hold quite the same appeal. I was even disappointed in Grandmothers (click here for my review), but this didn’t stop me feeling I just had to buy The Gardener (published in 2021/paperback 2022) as I looked through a display of new paperbacks in my local Waterstones recently. I did approach it slightly cautiously … would I like this one? I can’t say I loved it but I can say I liked it very much. It was a book that grew on me – the further into the book I got, the more I liked it and the more its quiet insight into the redemptive power of nature revealed itself to me.

The story is narrated by Hassie Days – real name Halcyon, chosen as a joke by her father, a birdwatcher (halcyon is a kind of kingfisher). It is her relationship with him that forms part of the many ‘relationships’ Hassie works through in this novel. I say ‘works through’ as there are difficulties, jealousies, disappointments and grief to be overcome. Vickers is a Jungian analyst and thus her books always explore the depths of our experience. There are lessons here, insights, and recognition and so while her books are entertaining as a read, they also offer us the chance to take a deeper look at life and our own experiences.

Devastated by the break-up of a relationship with Robert, Hassie moves from London to help her dying father in his last days. She has always been close to her father and memories of him form part of her foundation as she tries to recover from both the break-up and his death. With their joint inheritance, Hassie and her sister Margot buy a run-down Jacobean house – Knight’s Fee – in fictional Hope Wenlock (close to the very real Much Wenlock and Ludlow) on the Welsh/English borders. Hassie will live there all the time while Margot will continue to spend some time in London. We soon witness their strong sibling rivalry – so well described that it is at times uncomfortable to read. It’s a family belief that Hassie was her father’s favourite child and Margot their mother’s. This has caused a huge divide from their childhood. Another divide is their financial situation – Hassie is an impecunious illustrator of children’s books who no longer enjoys her work; Margot earns a large salary working in finance. Hassie cowers resentfully in the shadow of Margot’s sharp and harsh criticism. Both have fallen into a pattern of confrontational and competitive behaviour but what truth is there in their beliefs of its source? Assumptions have long been made; their parents, particularly the dysfunctional mother, have played their part. ‘It’s hard to come to terms with your parents’ limitations‘ Vickers writes.

Margot is scathing of Hassie’s attempts to befriend their neighbours in the village, who she calls ‘yokels’ and her warning of it causing trouble is horrifically realised later on in the novel. Meanwhile, Hassie befriends Miss Foot, a retired school teacher, who – it has to be said – is a little bit of a cliché, representing ‘common sense’ and ‘wisdom’. A deep bond forms between the two women and one day Hassie unburdens her grief over the loss of Robert but afterwards, she regrets opening up – as such closed, private people can do – and avoids Phyllis for a time. But later she remembers ‘Phyllis’s words to me in the garden: love is a flexible matter‘ and sees that she didn’t misjudge Robert’s love for her, ‘what I had misjudged was not his love but how far love is sovereign’. It struck me how we judge love by our own idea of it – what romantic, family, friendship love means – and can be hurt when those close to us express their love in a way that falls short of our ideal.

There is also Peter, the local vicar she befriends, who cannot get over the loss of his wife, Audrey, and agonises over his doubts of faith. And then there is Murat – the Albanian gardener.

As Hassie immerses herself in restoring the house’s huge and neglected garden, she gives work to Murat whom she suspects is an illegal immigrant and who she wants to help. Margot calls him ‘the terrorist’ but while in essence Margot’s comments are a joke meant to annoy her sister, his presence in the village brings up all kinds of racist tensions and prejudices. Shy at first and really knowing nothing about gardening, Murat is a willing pupil. As the garden slowly comes back to its former glory, Murat’s confidence grows and a kind of friendship forms between him and Hassie. ‘A kind of’ because he, like her, is closed about himself.

The present in the story is interspersed with flashbacks to Hassie’s affair with Robert, who she always knew was married but accepted at the beginning the ‘deal’. As she slowly recovers in the present, she is then suddenly thrown into despair by hearing Robert is no longer with his wife – but has made no attempt to contact her. This is not an unusual scenario, of course, but the emotional jolt eventually allows Hassie to move on.

Hassie becomes intrigued by notebooks she finds in the house, written by a previous owner; by the magical qualities and history of the garden and the myths imbedded in the surrounding area, through which she makes a deeper connection to the natural world. In these explorations she finds peace and eventually healing. Hassie and Margot gradually open up and slowly unpick the causes of their animosity to each other until at last they can form a bond unfettered from family history.

While the book is called The Gardener, is it isn’t really about Murat the actual gardener – although he is an important character – but the title is more a metaphor for the self and our psyche and how when life throws us into turmoil, like a wild garden love and tender care can restore it. And it is about the power of nature to restore us: ‘I got out and surveyed the landscape spread below. It doesn’t surprise me that revelations come to people standing on high ground … I felt my shoulders palpably relax and my spirits rise … I saw for a fleeting moment how small we mortals are … somehow, without our efforts of aid, matters may still turn out well.’

It was in the end an enjoyable, thought-provoking read with all those signature Vickers’ qualities of understanding self and relationships.

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