Garden of the Plagues by Russel Brownlee

I can’t remember where or when I got this book, but most probably at some charity sale in Pretoria as it cost me only R30 (about $2), according to the sticker. I do remember that the title caught my attention, and then the recommendation blurb from Andre Brink, one of South Africa’s greatest writers. But it sat on the shelf for a couple of years, and I finally decided to read it during my recent holidays in South Africa. I thought I’d try this concept of reading a book about a place I’m visiting, so I took “Garden of the Plagues” and “Heartland” by Jann Turner, both of which are novels set in the Cape but their contexts are quite different. The latter tells a great story of love, friendship and historical change as South Africa faces the new dawn after the fall of apartheid (and I’ll post a review later). Brownlee’s book is set in the 17th century though, at the start of European colonisation of this part of the world, and I found his portrayal of this period quite fascinating.

Image result for garden of the plaguesIt is a summer day in 1685, and the Tulp sails into Table Bay. Four of its passengers are dead, and there are rumours that the cause of death might have been Plague. The few inhabitants of this Dutch settlement are anxious. Simon Van der Stel, Commander of the Dutch East India Company, needs to act carefully; he’s been working hard to make this colony work and he doesn’t want such a risky occurrence to ruin his efforts, especially that he has Commissioner Van Rheede on an official visit to inspect the progress. He eventually requests that the Company’s gardener, Adam Wijk, investigate the vessel. He is the only settler who has some medical experience, having worked as a physician at the time of Black Death in London. The gardener does so reluctantly – he has wanted to leave his past behind, and for a good reason, and he hasn’t practised in a very long time. But an order is an order. As he enters the ship, he realises that one of the supposedly dead women is still alive. As he is quite certain that it wasn’t Plague that killed the others, he decides to bring her to the shore and nurse her back to health. What he doesn’t realise is that this decision will bring an avalanche of events and have a lasting effect on everyone in the settlement.

Brownlee creates a nearly magical atmosphere in this novel. The pace is slow, the language beautiful, and the characters vivid. He takes us on a trip back in time when Cape Town didn’t yet exist as a city but today’s locations, like Company Gardens or the Castle, were already present. Adam Wijk and his patient form a particular bond, although nothing is said between them. It is a love story but of an unusual kind. And while there is, in a way, an equally unusual happy ending, there is also a twist, right at the very end of the book, which suddenly throws a completely different light on the whole story. Meanwhile, we find out more and more about Adam’s mysterious past and what brought him to this remote part of the world. We meet an array of characters, some nasty, some peculiar, some quite ordinary, all of whom had different reasons to make this new colony their new home. There is also a Hottentot girl called Hester whose future looks quite bleak, and a bushman kept in a cage to entertain the white settlers. We get to know a bit about each of the characters, and learn about the rules of life in the colony.

While the story itself is entirely fictional, Brownlee’s interpretation of what life was like in those days feels very realistic, especially that both Van der Stel and Van Rheede are historical figures. Van der Stel was indeed the Commander, and later 1st Governor, of the Dutch Cape Colony, and the towns of Stellenbosch and Simon’s Town are named after him. I was reading this book in Stellenbosch, and then in Cape Town, driving past the Castle and walking near the Company Gardens (both of which I had visited many times before), and it felt quite exhilarating to be in those places and try to imagine how they looked 350 years ago. I guess this has made the novel even more appealing as it is set in a place familiar to me, in a country whose history I got to know. However, at the same time it had the quality of something new and refreshing as this was the first South African novel I read which wasn’t set in the 20th century, during or after apartheid. But even if you don’t know much about this country, you could still enjoy this novel for its original, beautifully written story and the interesting historical background. And if you are planning to visit Cape Town, I strongly recommend reading this book before or during your trip 🙂

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