Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

I don’t normally quote cover blurbs in my reviews, but in this case it’s a pretty good description of the book:

A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.

A “postmodern Victorian novel”, it turns out, is a novel set in a rural Kentish village inhabited by Charles Darwin, but told in a very innovative way. This is not a novel about a gardener so much as about a village, and the narrative voice slips seamlessly from one villager to another, even including jackdaws, chickens and the occasional sparrow.

When I say it slips seamlessly, I mean that the shifts from one person’s point of view to the next are not signalled by chapter breaks or scene breaks or headings or anything. One moment, you’re in the head of Hannah Hamilton, the next Alice Faine, the next the jackdaw.

There are also a LOT of characters, especially for a 122-page novel. The names come at you in quick succession: Thomas Davies the gardener, his children John and Cathy, Hannah Hamilton, Sarah Hamilton, Jennifer Kenny, Rosemary Rowe, Harry Rowe, Alice Faine, Henry Faine, Eileen Faine, James and Martha Bailey, Robert Kenny, Stuart and Lucy Wilkes and their son Charles, Lily Marsh. Charles Darwin himself is absent, only referred to obliquely by other characters, although his ideas are central to the novel.

It’s quite a challenge to keep up with all of these different characters, particularly because most of them narrate the action and so do not describe themselves. We go straight into their heads, with nothing but a name to remind us who they are and how they fit into the story.

Nevertheless, it works. It’s confusing, but there’s a beauty to it. It really feels like a whole village talking to you. In the opening scene, we see Thomas Davies the gardener walking down the street, but through the eyes of several different villagers giving different opinions on him, and then we go to church and have a scene narrated by the congregation in the first person plural:

We smell of wet dog. The rain drenched us. We are cold but singing warms us. The hymn rises up to the roof. God lives above the roof, amen. We saw Thomas Davies on the hill. He works in Mr Darwin’s garden. An atheist and a lunatic, he stood alone in the field, water whipping his face. A godless pit pony wandering in the dark, he hails from Wales. Does the heathen think he can avoid getting wet outside? Did the Devil give him an umbrella, or bat’s wings? Perhaps Thomas imagines he can control the rain. He thinks he is higher than God. He has his head in the clouds.

What the multiple narrators achieve, too, is to give a broad perspective on the themes mentioned on that cover blurb: faith, knowledge and our inner needs. Thomas Davies and his struggle to cope with his wife’s death are central to the novel, but almost all of the characters are dealing with their own losses and fears and disappointments too. Faith is a comfort to some, but mostly it doesn’t seem to help much. They still struggle to deal with death and loss and pain.

Meanwhile knowledge is mostly an illusion. The characters give views on Mr Darwin’s books although none of them seem to have read them (one character calls The Origin of Species a novel). There’s a book club meeting at which the conversation is riotous, even though nobody had time to read the book being discussed. There’s a newspaper article about Mr Darwin and his gardener which appears to shed light on both of them, but it’s quickly discredited. Most of the villagers have an opinion on Thomas Davies, but most of them are completely wrong. The villagers savagely beat  a man they believe to have seduced one of the village women, and we are left to wonder whether they were wrong about that, too.

So the postmodernism is not only in the innovative style of narration, but also in the novel’s view of humanity, which is almost diametrically opposed to the nineteenth-century belief in science and certainty and progress. The novel stays true to its setting by putting these certain, confident beliefs in the mouths of its characters, and then allows them to be undermined as we read on.

Even the ending is open-ended. It was satisfying to me, but won’t be to some readers. It ends with the narrator asking the one question that will be on every reader’s lips at that point, and replying, “I know nothing about that.” To me, that felt fitting.

Title: Mr Darwin’s Gardener
Author: Kristina Carlson (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah)
Publisher: Peirene Press
Pub date: June 2013
ISBN: 9781908670090
Page count: 112pp

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There are 8 comments

  1. You’ve made this sound very interesting; i’m fascinated, I definitely want to read it. I enjoy trying to work out Postmodernism, sometimes it really works for me, other times I finish feeling like an idiot.

    1. I know what you mean, Alice. Postmodernism is a slippery term, and I thought about staying away from it altogether, but it seemed to fit here. This book is definitely worth reading – hope you enjoy it! I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

  2. This looks like an interesting novel, Andrew! I like the fact that the points of view and the narrative voice in the novel keep changing seamlessly eventhough the author doesn’t try to show it in an explicit way. Very innovative. I also love the size of the book – Pereine press’ novellas are really wonderful. Thanks for this wonderful review and for introducing us to a new author, Andrew.

    1. Hi Vishy

      Yes, it is a very innovative way of changing the point of view. Works surprisingly well.

      The size of the novella is a big plus, particularly with a technique like this – it might get a little tiring after 500 pages 😉

  3. In a way it reminds me of Sleeping Patterns with a touch of Miss Marple in her English village.

    I have problems with the postmodernist tag. I don’t know what it means anymore.

    I’m curious about it. It doesn’t seem to be available in French, though and the structure of the book would probably difficult for me in English.

    1. That’s a good way of putting it – should have used that as my headline!

      I know what you mean about postmodern, and as I said in an earlier comment, I thought about avoiding the term altogether. It’s been used to mean a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts. But I thought it was a useful way of looking at this novel, because it highlighted the difference both in style and theme.

      I don’t know if the book would pose a problem for you in English, because your level seems very high. Maybe if you have a Kindle you could get the free sample, and see how that goes. The first chapter is pretty representative of the rest of the book.

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