‘You never forget a love that is true but it can live in your memory’. So are the mysterious musings of our heroine Isla in Fiona McIntosh’s new novel ‘The Tea Gardens’.
Once again Fiona provides an underlying theme for her novel and this time it is tea but unlike previous books with the themes of perfume and chocolate the tea is filtered feather like throughout the novel an integral part of her protagonist’s story. Her protagonist Isla is ‘a splendid character ‘says Fiona, when we caught up for a chat recently.
Isla when we meet her, is a confident woman, a skilled medical professional but as her story unfolds she is made aware of the complexities and ambiguities of medicine in general.
You might be excused reading the blurb, that the book is essentially about the work of doctors and midwives in India and indeed the book is about the health of woman as well as an examination of faith within medicine. It is also about Isa’s promise to honour her mother’s work. Isla’s mother died while saving lives in India but to do so she must make a compromise, to her father who doesn’t want Isla to suffer the same fate as her mother and to her fiancée, Jove, who agrees to her wishes for a six months working in India before settling into married life with him.
At the juncture of Isla and Jove’s meeting to affirm their agreement tea makes it’s first notable presence as the two partake of a beverage in the tea rooms before she leaves for India. This infusion of the healing substance continues to meet with us at various points in the novel.
In England, Isla notes, tea is metaphorically the cure of all ills, as it brings people together but in India tea literally cures. On her arrival Isla is introduced to the main varieties and properties of tea, culminating in her own use of tea to help heal fellow doctor Saxon Vickery, when he becomes ill.
Of her hero Jove, Fiona says she has ‘never created such a gentle, fair, calm, strong empathic and sympathetic male character’. While there is no human villain in this book, instead the real villain is the social conditions, the social conditions, poverty, religious and cultural divides that impact lives and the delivery of health services.
This book is not only infused with the aroma of tea and its healing powers but also the remarkable cultural knowledge that Fiona has infused her characters which is then juxtaposed with the reality tha t medical knowledge may not be enough when dealing with cultural sensitivities.
The novel’s ’symbolism, like the tea tempts repetition. The apex of the novel when Isla ascends the Himalayas, reaches the literal and metaphorical heights in her experience of love. The beautiful picture, on the inside cover of the novel taken by Fiona herself is a haunting image of the rooms of a man who saw medicine and healing as more than a physical process but a holistic one that encompassed the properties of tea and of an original bedside manner,
This novel with complexity on so many levels reminds us that life is complex, but enriched by stopping to taste the tea.
This is one of Fiona’s best yet, a masterpiece reminding us we could all use that medical miracle, the caul, to protect us from drowning in the tears of life.
The Tea Gardens is out now published by Penguin/Random House.