He had gone to the dark boundary, gazed across and, to his surprise, returned. He felt that he should have died. His survival distorted the smooth unrolling of time, as if he were a bulge of undigested frog in the belly of a snake. He felt both raw and precious, an unset gem, a gift to himself.
The Lady Tree, set in rural England and in Amsterdam in 1636, is the story of John Nightingale, known as John Graffham, and the phenomenon of tulip frenzy.
John, oprhaned at 7, murdered a man at 14 and has spent the last eleven years in hiding at his uncle's country estate -- Hawkridge House, in the tranquil Hampshire countryside. He loves the house and especially its gardens and fields, and has applied his knowledge of and passion for botany to the estate.
Then everything changes: his cousin Harry, accompanied by his new wife and a passel of business associates, descends upon Hawkridge and threatens the life that John has built for himself. Money's tight, a commercial venture in the East Indies looks set to fail, and John's knowledge of botany might give the consortium the edge in the fevered new market of tulip speculation. Travelling to Amsterdam, John encounters the trader Coymans, Coymans' beautiful and adventurous sister Marika, an artist known only as Saski, and a population -- from the widow who rents John a room, to apprentices and artisans who stake the tools of their trades -- desperate to speculate on tulips.
I've owned this book since the paperback edition was published (1999) but never got around to reading it until now. Some of the reviews made it sound like another period romance, a Philippa Gregory clone (though I read and adored Earthly Joys, Gregory's first novel about the Tradescant family), a 17th-century thriller. Dickason's writing hooked me from the first page, with its sensual detail, its dreamlike density, the unexpected metaphors and the sheer wealth of historical detail. John is a fascinating character with a dangerous streak: Zeal, Harry's wife, is prickly and uncertain but matures -- blossoms -- into a delightful character (faintly reminiscent of a young Philippa Somerville): Harry means well, truly he does, but is overwhelmed by his own ambition. Even minor characters have depth and motivation. The villain of the piece (who's hero, or at least protagonist, of the sequel) seemed a little shallow at times, but then we're seeing him through John's eyes, and John does not care for him at all.
There's a sense of being solidly immersed in landscape -- whether a beech hanger in Hampshire or a muddy field in Holland -- that balances the wider picture of a world in which England's a minor power impoverished by war and Holland a major trading empire. A sense of there being a world beyond John's personal knowledge but not beyond his reach.
I'm very much looking forward to Quicksilver, the sequel.