Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mr Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson

review by Maryom

A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.
The late 1870s, the Kentish village of Downe. The villagers gather in church one rainy Sunday. Only Thomas Davies stays away. The eccentric loner, father of two and a grief-stricken widower, works as a gardener for the notorious naturalist, Charles Darwin. He shuns religion. But now Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?

Mr Darwin's Gardener is the story of not merely one man but of a whole community. Set in the late 19th century when Darwin's theory of evolution is challenging the accepted view, it shows the dilemmas that must have been felt the world over as people struggled to adjust their view of creation. The village of Downe is a sleepy provincial place - where everyone knows their neighbours' business and an accident with a  horse and cart is a great event. The inhabitants are traditional in outlook; believers in Sunday church attendance and meting our their own rough justice. The women gossip over their charity work or at their book club; the men set the world to rights at the inn. An atheist from far-away Wales, Thomas Davies, Mr Darwin's Gardener, is an outsider in many ways. He has been widowed for 3 years but is still struggling to overcome his grief and carry on living. His extreme anguish at the time of his wife's death, seen in the burning of her bed and clothes, is beyond the comprehension of his more measured neighbours. Thomas doesn't believe in God, putting his faith in Mr Darwin and his scientific principles but can these give comfort to a grieving man?

The latest offering from Peirene press is something slightly different, an odd quirky book, a sort of cross between Cranford, Under Milk Wood and The Waves. The story is told, as stream of consciousness fragmented thoughts, through the voices of the villagers of Downe - and also the birds that watch their comings and goings. It gives a slightly fragmented feel to the story-telling, a bit like having several people talking to you at once, but once you've caught the rhythm of it, you see the world from inside their minds.

To me, it seemed like I could only see the shape of the novel once I'd reached the end. Couple that with the fact that outside events had made my reading scrappy and interrupted, and I decided to do an unusual thing - read it again straight away! The second reading was far better. I understood and could appreciate how the story was told from multiple points of view. Putting it down frequently is NOT the way appreciate it.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah.

Buy Mr Darwin's Gardener from Amazon or check out the Peirene website for subscription details

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