Salley Vickers’s new novel begins with a woman in her forties moving to a run-down cottage in the Shropshire village of Hope Wenlock. The improbably named protagonist, Halcyon Days (she goes by ‘Hassie’), has bought the cottage with her sister, the two of them combining their inheritances after their parents’ deaths. Hassie is haunted by memories of two men: her recently deceased father and her former lover, Robert, a married man with whom she had an affair. The gardener of the novel’s title is Murat, a local Albanian immigrant hired by Hassie to help her tame the cottage’s neglected grounds.
Vickers has a knack for nature writing. The Gardener brims with well-researched details of flowers, birds and other features of the landscape. While some urban readers may be unfamiliar with terms like ‘snicket’, ‘lychgate’, ‘forsythia’ and ‘phlox’, there is a sense that we are discovering this new taxonomy alongside the protagonist as she borrows books about wild flowers and gardens to help her decipher her environment.
Hope Wenlock is in the Welsh Marches, the ancient name for the ill-defined area of borderland between Wales and England. It soon becomes clear that Hassie too finds herself in a liminal space: she is caught between medieval and modern worlds, between imagination and reality, and between her own personal past and present as she struggles with a ‘recidivist’ inability to move on from Robert. She imbues the natural landscape with spiritual significance, becoming preoccupied by ‘pre-Christian habits of nature worship’. St Milburga, a medieval abbess, serves as a kind of guardian figure: at one point Hassie spontaneously murmurs a prayer to her when visiting the nearby ruins of Wenlock Priory. At the same time, Hassie is a people-pleaser, longing ‘to be thought well of by the locals’, concerning herself with their gossip and going out of her way to win their favour.
The novel is set against the backdrop of post-Brexit hostility towards immigrants and people of colour. Hassie tries to take a principled stand against some villagers’ casual racism towards Murat, but this largely fails, leaving her to ponder the difference between being a self-appointed do-gooder and actually doing good. Passing references to the difficulties of Brexit (tabloid headlines observed in the village shop; a reference to Theresa May’s inability to create unity among her MPs) suggest that Vickers sees a certain brokenness in British rural society, stemming from the social divisions that the 2016 referendum laid bare.
The Gardener is a tender manifesto for how what is broken and neglected in us can be restored through care, love and time. If the novel has a fault, it is that it’s too focused on the protagonist. Little time is spent developing Murat’s character and the descriptions of him often speak to stereotypes: he is cautious, diligent, deferential and mostly silent; he has ‘dazzling teeth’ and ‘topaz eyes’, uses formal language and misunderstands British idioms. It is difficult not to cringe as Hassie remarks to the local vicar, ‘I’m all in favour of immigrants … Especially when they’re like Murat. They strike me as much harder workers than the British.’
Murat is one of a handful of village locals who feel simple and underdeveloped. This is at odds with the promise of depth in the novel’s epigraph, taken from W H Auden’s poem ‘At Last the Secret is Out’: ‘there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.’ It is only really Hassie’s sister, Margot, who is discovered to be more complex than first imagined. But then again, the story’s simplicity is a deliberate part of its fairy-tale charm. It is the village’s ancient woodland that hides the most secrets in the end.
The house’s garden makes for a strong central metaphor, steadily progressing from a wilderness into a flourishing garden, eventually even producing its own harvest as a result of Murat’s attentive work. Ultimately, the mystical charms of the natural world provide Hassie with a kind of healing as she sees the possibilities of new life and becomes less concerned with winning the approval of others. In this sense, reading The Gardener is a form of healing in itself.