For some reason I missed reading Jane's first book The Book of Fires, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers a few years ago, but no worries I have it off the shelf and waiting now that I have finished The Knot.
Jane wrote a lovely few words in our Visitor's Book at Port Eliot Festival when I placed it in front of her, remarking that life was short and the book was long so she would quite understand if time constraints got in the way of my reading it. And yes I would agree, at 420 pages, The Knot is a long book, and reading time is precious and at a premium for me and for many of you I feel sure, but time flew as I was transported back to the Somerset Levels in the mid-sixteenth century, and then slowed to the pace of life as it was at Lytes Cary Manor.
I haven't been too sure which sort of reading world I am ready to enter after a long and very different summer of less work and more play for me (I use the word 'summer' advisedly to mean the months of June/July/August, not the weather...sorry UK-relevant whinge only). As the leaves start to turn and the mist rises up over the Tamar at dawn and dusk it always feels like an important reading moment, time to look ahead and be ready with some winter reading projects to immerse myself in, shelve some of the familar and unearth some of the writers and the books I may have neglected or forgotten about.
The Knot has been a perfect start with its fabulous descriptions of nature and the land throughout the year as Henry Lyte, master of the Manor, widowed and re-married following the death of his first wife, father to four daughters works to translate the 'impossible manuscript', a Herbal to better all Herbals. Henry's mission, to flout the true evil which he sees as the purposeful withholding of knowledge ... 'he has finished butterbur and begun bistort today'..
Of BORAGE. Which endureth the winter like to the common Buglosse. The stalke is rough and rude, of the height of a foote and halfe, parting it selfe at the top into divers small branches, bearing faire and pleasant flowers in fashion like starres of colour blewe or Azure and sometimes white.
Each chapter begins in this way, with an extract from the Herbal and I wondered whether the ordering of these perhaps concealed some secret key to what I was reading...or perhaps there was relevance buried deep within each chapter. If so I failed to find it and may have missed the obvious so engrossed was I.
But it was all sufficient for me to go dashing out to find our surprise clump of borage. Nothing like a complete upheaval of the garden as has engaged Bookhound this year, to wake up long lost seeds. I must now confess that the borage seeds originally came from some plants on Sylvia Plath's grave in Heptonstall, flowering around here for years and then seeming to disappear, and I quite thought they were lost until now..
and the same for the poppies...
Henry is also creating a Knot Garden for Lytes Cary Manor the significance of which waxes and wanes throughout the book, frequently reflecting Henry's need for order and control when life starts to spiral in the opposite direction. When plagued with anxieties and nursing the knot in his stomach it is to his Knot Garden that Henry retreats, to dig and feel at one with the earth. Except coming between him and the satisfaction all this might offer is his rather sour, yet wise old gardener Tobias Motes....bit of a misery-on-legs truth be told, but Tobias knows his ways, and they is right ways.
The chapters are short and there are many unknowns; guilt and mysteries touched on, and incipient madness occasionally beckoning. Just how has Henry's first wife Anys died, and what is the sense of unease that pervades his life.
Why the bad dreams that leave him with a
'dirty, uncomfortable feeling in his chest, like a tidemark inside his flesh where a surge of something has receded.'
Then the question of his father's will and the inheritance Henry must battle for with his step-mother.
And through it all Jane Borodale exhibits a breathtaking knowledge of all things rural and horticultural a la sixteenth century, as well as embedding history within her narrative. The Great Comet of 1577 must have been a spectacular sight and one ripe for so much wild interpretation coupled with a deep sense of foreboding
'He turns suddenly and what he sees fills him with dread and realization that some part of the world, possibly his, is on the cusp of something very bad. A monstrous light, its head half as wide as the moon. has risen above the south-western horizon. Blue-white, trailing an arc of brightness. It can only be a comet...'
There are great swathes of beautiful description here too. When Henry and Frances's first born son is dying, and husband and wife experiencing grief out of tandem, and which for each 'has a different taste,' Jane Borodale creates an analogy for that moment of death using butterflies that can't fail to move and comfort. I don't want to dissect this pitch-perfect page of writing for a few suitable lines because it was written as a whole and should be read as such, but as you can imagine, following recent experience, it struck a truly harmonious chord with me.
I went to a celebration of Jeannie's life on Friday afternoon. It was a beautiful and moving service, her husband's eulogy delivered with a wit and composure of which Jeannie would have been proud. We cried and we sang and never have the words of I Vow to Thee My Country embraced me in quite the way they did on Friday...
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
In the front row Jeannie's newest grandson, just a few months old, in the row behind another grandson, about eight years old and lifting his glasses to wipe the tears from his eyes, and as I looked around the church at us all wearing the bright colours that Jeannie had requested, I thought of Jane Borodale's butterflies,
'...a host of flickering colours bearing one soul away.'
and of a lovely friend whose spirit will live on, and who I will never forget.