READING a Salley Vickers novel can feel as though you were on retreat. She has long established herself as a novelist who likes to portray individuals in need of pastoral and spiritual sustenance. She likes to focus on the shaping of an individual by a community, coincidence, and numinous encounters. She employs symbolism, myth, and literary allusion, and, at her best, takes the reader to the brink of magical realism.
Seven relationships form the heart of her latest novel — with Hassie, its first-person narrator. There is her irritating sister, Margot, with whom she has bought a Jacobean mansion, Knight’s Fee. There are the villagers of Hope Wenlock, in the Welsh Marches, where the house is situated (the widower vicar, the shopkeeper, the former schoolmistress).
Hassie is haunted by the relationship with her late father, and by the memories of her former lover, Robert. She becomes interested in the mysterious previous owner of Knight’s Fee, Nellie East, whose notebooks she finds and reads; a young and wayward girl, Penny Lane, dashes into her life; and then there is the gardener, Murat, employed to tend the grounds of Hassie’s and Margot’s new home.
The narrator speaks honestly and openly to herself about her physical and emotional feelings. We witness her growing self-awareness and fulfilment, through her garden — “my small private paradise which I felt honoured to share with the birds” — and through her connectedness with landscape, trees, animals, a snail, the weather, and through her many literary recollections, including Emily Brontë, T. S. Eliot, Hardy, Hopkins, Beatrix Potter, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth.
There are several “gardeners” in this novel of pruning, engrafting, and self-growth: “I tried to wrench my life round into a new pattern,” Hassie says. She succeeds both naturally and supernaturally in a novel that notices the possibilities of healing among the fragilities of life.
The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is a Church of England priest and head of research for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
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