This is a perfect book for the green-fingered reader – and also for translators! Henry Lyte has made it his life’s work to translate an herbal by the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens. He is also inspired to create a new garden at the beautiful old Somerset manor house, Lytes Cary. Unlike his translation, however, the garden can never be “finished” and will always be a work in progress.
After the death of his first wife Anys, Henry falls in love with a London beauty, Frances. She struggles to adapt to country life and feels threatened by the marshy landscape of the Levels. The unexplained circumstances of Henry’s first wife’s death and the unsettling presence of blind Widow Hodges create tension from the outset of the novel. This is exacerbated by the hostility shown by Henry’s father, which is compounded by the latter’s death and the persisting malevolence of his stepmother, Joan Young.
There are moments of desperation – but also real beauty in this story of how a man’s love for his family, his work and nature ultimately allows him to discover the peace and fulfilment embodied in the Knot at the heart of his garden. The various facets of Henry’s life are beautifully woven together with an exploration of deeper questions concerning religion and science – epitomised by Henry Lyte’s dangerously unorthodox belief in the existence of a universal spirit – and the nascent revolution in popular science, which is hastened by the publication of this and other herbals. Borodale excels for the detail of her research while telling an evocative story.