To date, on this blog, I have reviewed seven of Peirene’s seventeen releases to date, I have read one other (“White Hunger” by Aki Ollikainen) and actually didn’t get around to writing up a review, maybe one day!!! I have absolutely no qualms in purchasing any of their titles as I am yet to come across a shocker. I have favourites, I have some that didn’t raise me to great heights, however they are always a quality presentation with a surprise of some description in store. The “short” concept also is appealing to me, as it acts as a nice counterbalance to some of the weightier behemoth’s I occasionally attack (and not always successfully!) I do own every title they have released so it is only a matter of time and I will have reviewed all of their catalogue for you.
Why all the preamble? Well, today’s title, “Mr Darwin’s Gardener” by Kristina Carlson (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), would be the most “experimental” of the Peirene titles I have read to date. I use the word “experimental” as I have heard somebody else use it to describe this book, personally I hate that description as it can automatically alienate a number of potential readers, I would prefer to call it “less conventional”.
On the surface our story is about Thomas Davies, a man stuck down with grief over his wife’s death, he is left alone to raise two young children who are “not quite right”, and by the way he’s Charles Darwin’s gardener. Our story opens on with a section called “A Sunday In November” and although written in the first person, we see the story unfolding through various parishioners’ eyes, as they are off to church. A number of them think about godless Thomas working for a godless man (Darwin), he is shunned:
Do-gooders understand disease and even death, but not the fact that I want to be alone. Solitude is what they themselves fear most.
When I was out of my mind and the children were asleep, I wrote:
The silence of plants calms the mind. I am glad that plants do not run off like animals or fly away like birds. They stay put for hundreds of years, like oaks, or they vanish for winter and rise from the ground like the blue lily of the east, and they spread joyously like the balsam that flings its seeds far.
When Gwyn was dying, I did not think about where she was going, but about what she was leaving. She was abandoning Catherine, John, and me. She did not leave abruptly. Death held the door ajar for many months.
I wrote that a plant dies easily, and annual’s stem withers after the seeds have developed.
The villagers believe it is not worthwhile for a family such as ours to carry on living. They think that is the law of nature. In his newspaper article, Lewis put thoughts in my mouth that many find pleasing in their terribleness.
Anything goes, whether it comes from God or science or one’s own head. As long as the evidence supports a notion one believes anyway. Village theology amounts to raking with a flea comb. Inappropriate thoughts are tidied away. At the same time, the hair falls out.
Of course that was Thomas Davies’ voice, some others are harder to decipher, others very simple as they’re named, some voices go for pages, some for just a paragraph. The second section, “A stranger in August”, sees the arrival of a stranger and our various narrators hypothesise on who this stranger is, “it is because Mr Darwin lives here, and godlessness is a worse threat than in neighbouring villages”, the stranger must be here to sell Bibles, deluxe ones of course.
Each character’s narration is sprinkle of their own views on the matter at hand, and these layers, from various viewpoints, slowly build to give you a semblance of a perceived truth, but in reality it is like trying to follow a dust mote with your eyes in the bright light, you have very little substance and is any of it true? Perception is the truth here.
Our novella is set in the 1870’s, twenty years after “Origin of Species” was first published and although Charles Darwin himself does not feature as a character his gardener is the main core of the spiral of innuendo, gossip, hypothesis and rumour.
Section three – “At the anchor” reveals a little about how, as a reader, you need to decipher the wheat from the chaff, the substance from the froth, who is speaking here:
Man has only three hidey-holes from life: booze or sleep...
The third is a woman.
I was thinking of death.
A man goes mad if he cannot escape his life for a short while. His head can’t stand life for days on end. Perhaps that’s what troubles Thomas, and he hasn’t yet found the cure.
A Christian will help another Christian. When a victim of circumstances rejects this help, it is as if he were placing a lump of manure on a palm held out for a warm handshake.
Fresh manure is warm, too.
A rock of offence will not hurt us, for a Christian must forgive. I forget how many times, I’ve no head for maths.
What about a head for drink?
Section four, “The Second Advent”, starts to bring all the village rumours toward the common theme of Thomas Davies. The murky waters are becoming clearer.
My Hume claims that in country places, a rumour about a marriage will take flight more easily than any other. But he is wrong there, for accidents and diseases excite people far more. The joy of being able to impart such engrossing news, and be the first to spread it, is much greater.
Very much like “The Alphonse Courrier Affair, by Marta Morazzoni (translated by Emma Rose), which I reviewed at the start of Women In Translation Month this is the story of a small village and the gossip and innuendo, here overshadowed by religious beliefs.
A spacious mind engages with big questions, whereas small souls are satisfied with crumbs to chew on.
Our book finishes with a section called “In Spring”, a time of renewal perhaps?
Unconventional would be a word to describe this book, however it is not so extreme that you cannot make sense of it, I did take about 20 or so pages to warm to the style and decipher the narrative structure, once I was there it was a very enjoyable read, with the many layers of voices slowly building a focused view. The lingering doubt remains as so many voices are far from the mark of the perceived truth, so it leaves you with that feeling, what is truth? Blend that with a religious flavour, the all pervading nature (our main man is a gardener), with the shadow of Charles Darwin and there are many many angles to pursue here. Another worthwhile publication from Peirene Press.