(HarperPress, 2012, 448 pages, ISBN 9780007313327)
Henry Lyte is a man who is passionate about plants. Recently remarried after the tragic death of his first wife Anys, he still finds more than enough time to absorb himself in the world of flora, working to translate and consolidate an important Dutch herbal. And he also has ambitious plans; plans for a magnificent garden replete with herbs, a decorative knot at its core. Yet Henry Lyte doesn’t sleep well. Ghosts from his past tug at him, refusing to be ignored. And in the here-and-now, the malignant presence of his step-mother Joan Young winds its way around him like bindweed – threatening everything he loves.
This is a rich, often contemplative novel, yet with strong sources of conflict, and I enjoyed it immensely. It focuses on the years between 1565 and 1578, and there’s a strong sense of the period, in the way that the characters reason as much as in depictions of dress, music or custom. The dialogue is well-crafted, and flavoured with Elizabethan words and grammatical structures enough to convince, but not distract. The novel is written in the present tense and at first I found the reading slightly slow-going as I adjusted to this, as well as the gentle pace, which is largely the result of Borodale’s luscious and intricate prose, steeped in nature – above all, Henry Lyte’s love of plants. Not only does she include many descriptions of the plants themselves (the one of lilies at night is my particular favourite) but there’s also a great deal of imagery based around them, often linking plant with human. The reader never forgets the importance of plants to the central character.
Henry Lyte of Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset was a real historical figure, and he is treated here with sensitivity and respect. Although the novel is third-person, Borodale tells the story almost exclusively through Henry’s point of view, so that we gain a deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of this complex and interesting character. Henry Lyte is a man beleaguered by guilt over past actions and not without foibles, but he is also private, compassionate, dedicated, with a deep appreciation of nature and a desire to share his knowledge of it in order to help others. In many respects he’s a man of his time; when his views do tip into the unorthodox they are never of the extreme kind but rather the sort of questioning one could well imagine occurring in the context, as he explores and ponders man’s place in the natural world.
The narrative’s focus on Henry and his immediate world means that events outside of Lytes Cary are often distant; the displacement of the Huguenots, for example, or the formation of a local militia to repel a possible Spanish invasion, are touched upon in no more than a few lines, which perfectly encapsulates the insular feel of life on a minor country estate in the sixteenth century.
This estate also happens to be populated by a number of satisfyingly drawn characters: the outspoken gardener Tobias Mote; the unsettling Widow Hodges; Henry’s new wife Frances, whose dislike of the Levels which surround Lytes Cary borders on obsession. The Levels are almost a character in themselves, always on the margins of the inhabitants’ lives, sometimes venturing all the way in; a reminder of mortality yet also a demonstration of life springing from death – unstable both metaphorically and literally. Borodale captures their liminal state well, but she also makes them very real, through her beautiful descriptions of abundant summer plants, for example, or the glimmering floodwater which needs to be navigated in winter.
The novel also includes extracts from Henry’s Niewe Herball at the start of each chapter, illustrations based upon the woodcuts from his book, and a picture of Henry Lyte himself, all of which help to bring him just that bit closer. An author’s note at the end explains some of the history behind the novel.
A detailed, absorbing and touching literary tale of a man who deserves to be better known.