Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn came about as the result of the author’s belief that ‘stories circulate in the ether and if you are receptive, they will tap you on the shoulder and start to whisper in your ear’. (http://kaytenunn.com)
On a visit to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens the author was inspired by a beautiful sundial and had a mental picture of such an object set in an English walled garden. At a later time, her visit to Kew Gardens found her interest awakened again by an exhibition of botanical art and another of the work and letters of a nineteenth-century plant hunter. These things form the basis of her novel The botanist’s Daughter.
This dual timeline novel follows the lives of two young women both with a quest of discovery.
The first story is set in Cornwall in the 1880s where Elizabeth has been given a deathbed request by her father, a renowned traveller and plant collector, to continue on his work and find an elusive plant which though it can be deadly also has great life-saving potential. This request comes with a serious warning about an unscrupulous competitor. ‘ He can charm the skin off a snake, but he has the scruples of the devil himself. Don’t give him a single reason to suspect you, or you will be in fear of your life’(33).
Although Elizabeth has always been interested in her father’s work and has become a skilled botanical illustrator she knows that as a young woman she has been set a very dangerous mission. Against strong opposition from her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth finds the newly installed bronze sundial with its engravings of ‘mint for virtue, oregano for joy, lavender for devotion, hyssop to cleanse, lemon balm for wit, borage for courage, chamomile for comfort and bay for glory’ (53)and globe that revolved on its axis, helps steady her resolve and soon she is on the boat to Chile with her maid.
The second story is set in Australia in 2017 and begins with Anna, who had inherited her grandmother’s house, discovering a diary and waterproof chest containing botanical illustrations, a photograph and a small bag of seeds, when renovation work is undertaken. Her search for answers as to why these were found in her Grandmother’s house leads her to England where eventually the two stories intersect. Anna has her own gardening business so both stories are also linked through the knowledge of all things botanical.
The author has used her knowledge from growing up in England and thorough research to present the reader with authentic descriptions of plant species found in all the locations described in this novel. For the most part the book is made up of alternating chapters presenting one story then the other.
Kayte Nunn also brings to this novel her expertise as a book magazine and web editor with two decades of publishing experience to produce a storyline which flows beautifully. This is not her first novel. She has also written Rose’s Vintage (2016) and Angel’s Share (2017) both set in lush vineyards’.
The Botanist’s Daughter has adventure, danger, love, loyalty, murder and the exoticness of a different culture. What more could a reader require?
Throughout the story we are reminded that there are always flowers for those that want to see them and when we take the time to look we can discover much beauty, variety and perhaps usefulness.
A very good read.
By Kayte Nunn