Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mr Darwin's Gardener, by Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin's Gardener

by Kristina Carlson

Published by Peirene Press

I loved Asko Sahlberg's The Brothers, translated by mother and daughter team Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, so I picked up this book, by another Finnish author Kristina Carlson, translated by the same team, with some anticipation.  I wasn't disappointed.

It is impossible to describe this book - a novel, yes, but not in any conventional sense.  Poetry in prose?  Certainly that.  There's a concentration on language, observation, a polyphony of voices.  Kristina Carlson is also a poet, so it's no surprise to find her prose so rich and allusive.

Thomas Davies has lost his wife;  he has two children with congenital defects and is an aetheist;  he is Mr Darwin's gardener.  The villagers watch him, as they watch each other.  We move in and out of their heads, listening to their thoughts and opinions and most intimate concerns.

The doctor drinks and his wife cries.  Stuart Wilkes invents impractical domestic objects.  Jennifer Kenny brews herbal remedies;  her niece dreams of the novel she will probably never write.  Rosemary Rowe fears her violent husband.  Thomas Davies ponders the meaning of life and finds consolation in the garden;  'the most beautiful thing about plants is their silence'.

A stranger arrives in the village, but then he is recognised as someone whose identity stirs the men into violent action; 'revenge brings great satisfaction'.  But the body disappears, causing consternation and fear.

It is difficult for any writer to take the reader back past the two great watersheds in human psychology - Darwin and Freud.  How do you get inside the minds of people who believed that the world was created, complete with all the animals, in 7 days, and were not troubled by theories of self-consciousness?  Kristina Carlson,  writing very simply, about the day to day concerns of the people, their hopes and private tragedies, takes us back to a Kent village in the 1870s, very successfully.

Kristina is a highly regarded author in Finland.  I was lucky enough to hear her talk at one of the Peirene Press supper clubs, where she said that this novel is the one she had wanted to write since she was sixteen.  It's beautifully translated.  I noticed a lot of 2 star and 1 star reviews on Goodreads because people have found it difficult. If you try to read it as a conventional novel then, yes, it will not meet your expectations.  It's post-modern, experimental - a fluid, multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative that flows like music. You have to forget everything and immerse yourself in  the language and the voices.

For me it is like water in the desert to find a novel that hasn't come out of the Creative Writing Factory, a novel that is about language and image, that carries ideas and stirs the imagination. We live in the characters' minds, translated through time. I read it twice and will read it again.  It's the kind of book you can just dip into, like a collection of poetry. 

Mr Darwin's Gardener

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