Written partly during COVID lockdown, partly as the terrible events transpired around the murder of George Floyd by US police officers in May 2020, and largely within the setting of a tranquil yet to the author wholly unfamiliar English village in Somerset, the book offers wide scope for a woman of Caribbean descent to ponder identity and what constitutes the truest feeling and reality of ‘home.’
Raised in Trinidad and Tobago to the age of 19, Marchelle won a government grant that brought her to Cambridge and then Christ Church, Oxford from 2003 to complete the clinical part of her medicine degree.
Attaining the position of consultant psychiatrist in Oxford – a brilliant achievement - did not however bring a strong feeling of rootedness, despite a happy base in the gradually gentrifying heterogeneity of Headington.
Then motherhood arrived, and then the big move to the countryside that constitutes the basis of this narrative.
The story begins with that move and a completely glorious trip to view properties close to Bath on a sunny day in October 2019, where her husband Oli had been offered a consultant position as a cardiologist.
‘The cottage featured in the book was the last property we saw that day. It felt ‘right’. We put in an immediate offer and it was accepted on Monday morning.’
Marchelle says that her very strong pull towards this property rested partly on subconscious cues that she later identifies. ‘The way the cottage was set within the landscape evoked memories of our family home in Trinidad…I became aware of this later.’
This revelation prompts a broader discussion by phone, about the extent to which human action is swayed more by feeling and association than by logic and reason. ‘I think logic and reason are more often than not invoked to justify an emotional decision already taken,’ she says.
That is not, however, to totally discount reason and logic. But too often, she says, we overestimate the degree to which we act logically.
The book concerns turning around a garden with much potential, fixing a house where the boiler promptly breaks as winter begins, reflecting on the visceral realities of giving birth to two children, aged four and five during the book, today seven and eight; and beyond it a village community that turns out to be pretty welcoming despite a plethora of understandable concerns.
One of those concerns is a fear of racism that Marchelle has encountered many times before since she came to Britain - and we get to hear about that during the book and it’s much worse than we might breezily assume.
But gardening is the driving force of the book.
‘I have no formal training as a gardener,’ she says. ‘But it’s evolving beautifully. It’s quite wild which we like. Year on year there are masses more insects than when we arrived, and we have had a notable population of glow worms come to us.’
I ask for her favourite plants. She says without hesitation, ‘wisteria,’ also the title of a chapter within the book. She has lilac and pink draping the cottage, the latter has just had ‘an astounding year,’ she adds. ‘I like wisteria because it is quintessentially an English cottage species.’ In the book, she notes how tropical wisteria was a feature of her upbringing and populates a petrea avenue at the Royal Botanic Gardens; they bloom in time for Mother’s Day in Trinidad.
Marchelle then delves into the fascinating historical connections, the fact that the Royal Botanical Gardens were a colonial creation in 1818 and that wisteria was brought into England in 1816 by the Inspector of Tea for the East India Company.
It’s not an innocent narrative, far from it.
‘The flowers travelled along Imperial trade routes, which moved plants and people around the world, so often violently against their will, like poisoned umbilical cords that bind places together to this day.’
In this regard the book is excellent at exploring ambivalence, a characteristic that Marchelle sees most keenly in her own reticence to call England home, and born of numerous traumatic encounters of everyday racism that in a medical context turn out to be much worse than one might assume – ‘We all think of the medical profession as a place where good people go, don’t we?’
We get to hear shocking accounts of casual racism, overheard, off-colour remarks by doctors concerning Marchelle as a patient or in childbirth; the administering of the wrong medicines to Marchelle as a 14 year-old; of invasive examinations and professional prejudice. Bad, bad stuff we might like to imagine couldn’t exist. Well, it does, and not in the distant past either.
Yet matters are as they present. How to make better, to level, to thrive? It is an even-tempered but clear-eyed account. ‘Even hate not love’s opposite, but its perversion.’
The book burns with a lot of love, for two delightful children who play non-stop in that garden in lock-down, mud griming their toes; for family and the safe return of Oli each day despite the dreadful real and imagined risks of COVID. For plants and for the earth.
The book’s arc may be familiar to many Oxonians: it concerns a ‘later coming of age’. The whole life cycle is meant to be a site of development, not a plateau. Old age ought to be as curious as childhood. The book brims with that curiosity, the reckoning of things learned or intuited.
There is a moment late into the book where two things crystallize at once, growing into her native name Ayana, meaning ‘’beautiful flower’ in the language of imagined ancestors,’ and synthesising a much earlier desire to be a writer with her medical professional identity:
‘As a child I wanted to be a writer. I was told for the safety and security of my own future that this was not viable, encouraged to pursue my interest in human stories through the path of medicine instead. I look at the garden, and I begin to write.’
The book loosely pursues a seasonal progression, from viburnum, primrose and hellebore to Mexican hydrangea, asters and salvia. It is a rich harvest and may yet convince you to quit the city, or to bring a similar approach to a city garden.
The book is published on 3 August yet has already won the Nan Shepherd prize. That is explained by the fact that the prize itself, which is awarded to under-represented voices in nature writing, is a book deal with publisher Canongate.
‘I was in a PTA fundraising event when I heard I had won, and it was Christmas 2021!’
Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd (1893-1981) was a Scottish modernist writer and poet. She wrote a seminal mountain memoir, The Living Mountain, in the 1940s that lay unpublished for years yet upon publication in 1977 became celebrated, later influencing other writers such as Robert Macfarlane.
Marchelle explains that her literary agent approached her directly, via regular writing she was posting on sub-stack and via social media. She says she has written a journal since an early age.
This confirms what QUAD has heard elsewhere from the publishing trade, that a social media following and regular writing seem to be the modern prerequisites for then entertaining a book project.
Wisely, Marchelle says she has more to say but no burning desire to say it immediately. Sequels are so often ruined by unrealistic pressures.
She says she is concerned by the degree to which technology seems to be outpacing us, as a species. And finds it bizarre that as a species ‘we have incontrovertible evidence about climate change yet still carry on with many of the same behaviours.’
‘I saw this in COVID. This ‘keep calm and carry on…’ is all very well but it’s also highly problematic. The underlying problem festers in the unconscious part of us.’
"She adds, ‘pain can be unbearable, but we shouldn’t just try to ignore it. It’s an alarm call to which we should attend."
She has not discounted that as a species we are in a ‘collective moment of madness’ amidst ‘an immensely irrational age.’
There are undoubtedly historical parallels but also recent literary reflections on the same – one thinks of Amitav Ghosh’s (St Edmund Hall, 1978) The Great Derangement (2016), where he considers how woefully art and literature has responded to climate change, as though steeped in a self-regarding denial of epic proportions.
Name two more flowers dear to you, we had asked by e-mail.
Roses grow poorly in Trinidad but do rather well in Britain. ‘They still evoke memories of my grandmother in Trinidad.’
‘And magnolia. It’s not in the book but my first room in Christ’s College, Cambridge, the tutor told me I had a wonderful magnolia tree outside and he was right. It almost grew into the room. When it bloomed it was simply incredible.’