I'm deep into final revisions of a new historical novel called The Physic Garden. So far, only two other people have read it - well, three, if you count the young intern who read it for my last-but-one agent and dismissed it as 'just an old man, telling his story.' It was about that time that the agent in question gave me the push, having decided that she had bigger and more lucrative fish to fry. This was clearly true and I can't really complain about her decision. I was never going to come up with the instant blockbuster hit. But it's still a shock when somebody whom you have thought of as a supporter decides that they don't want you any more. Especially when, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I had actually been given the chance to leave her for other representation, but had elected to follow her to her new company just a year previously. Silly me.
The daft thing is the intern was right. It is an old man telling his story. His name is William Lang, he's a bookseller who used to be a gardener in the Old College of Glasgow University and he is looking back over a long life, well lived, telling a tale of youthful friendship and appalling betrayal from the perspective of old age. In the course of the story he reaches some surprising and moving conclusions. That first reader clearly didn't get it at all. And for a little while I set it to one side, disillusioned. Although why the crass opinion of a single person who I suspect only read a chapter or two should have meant anything at all to me, I don't know. But we are easily knocked off our perches, especially when a book is very dear to us. After a while, I saw that this novel was and remains very dear to me. And that it isn't 'just' anything. But it certainly is an old man telling his story and none the worse for that.
Of the two other people who have read it so far, one tells me she loves it and one finds it so harrowing, so desperately sad, that she can't 'like' it in the conventional sense, but that's OK. Because she 'gets' it too. She understands it.
It is a sad and challenging book, for sure. Even now, when I read through it, the sense of an inevitable tragedy runs through and through it, bring a lump to my throat. The narrator seems very real to me, a strong character who insisted on telling his story in his own voice. It felt a little as though I were channelling somebody. An odd and uncanny sensation. The novel rushes headlong towards some unbearable denouement which I could do nothing at all to avert. No more could he. And yet, and yet, there is some kind of resolution and we are well aware that this is a fine man who has lived a good and fulfilling life.
My only reservation may be that some of my lovely, supportive readers who appreciate my other, contemporary novels may find this one ... quite different. I hope they bear with me - and William - enough to give it a try. We'll see. I have a feeling it might be a bit like Marmite. You'll either love it or loathe it. It's scheduled for publication some time in mid February. But in the run up to publication day, I'll try to tell you a little more about everything that inspired it, and the historical background to the story.