Everyone but themselves.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2011 in Finnish; 2013 in English
Date Reviewed: 1st August 2013
Original language: Finnish
Original title: Herra Darwinin Puutarhari (Mr Darwin’s Gardener)
Translated by: Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
In a village in the 1800s, people are concerned about Charles Darwin’s research, and are preoccupied by his garderner.
Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a book in which people worry about change, about the lack of change, and things they don’t know about.
The style of the book is poetic. For the most part the book fits the concept of a prose poem and to a person unused to poetry it may thus prove confusing. The writing itself, translation or not (this edition has been translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah), emphasises the erratic changes in the thought patterns of the villagers and keeps a steady pace.
The thoughts are told in the first person with an introduction of sorts in the third. It is somewhat ironic that at times it’s difficult to tell who is speaking, as Carlson’s writing emphasises the similarities between her characters and she writes in the same voice for each of them – presumably, in part, to ensure the poetic nature of the book. Due to the irony, the way the book is poetic, it is impossible to say that in this case not being about to tell the characters apart is a bad thing. Indeed the creation of an almost completely solo voice says much about what Carlso is looking to achieve. It is a crowd of like-minded people that is anxious about the gardener, rather than the individual.
There are a lot of details about all manner of subjects owing to the erratic thought processes. By and large thoughts begin with Darwin or his gardener and can end up anywhere. This darting about can create some confusion that echoes the characters’ minds.
The themes of the book are identity, the world (in a way), and a subtheme, of sorts, of everyone concerning themselves in the lives of everyone but themselves. Indeed although it begins with everyone worrying about the soul of the gardener, it soon becomes a worry about everyone and their dog. At times it would seem that no one has anything to do, barring think, and whilst in some cases that may be true, in general it’s not.
So, as you can tell just from this review, the book is thin on plot. It is a character-driven story, a series of monologues, yet the only person who develops in any way is Mr Davies, the gardener. But then the plot isn’t what is important, and instead of the otherwise-expected character development there is the reinforcement of views. It is difficult to explain, but the book is extremely character-driven without being character-driven.
The book shows ‘busybodyness’ in the extreme, and illustrates how individuals’ lives might be better if they just concentrated on themselves. Mr Darwin himself doesn’t feature, which is just as well really, because it wouldn’t be nice to feel an outcast in your own village.
Mr Darwin’s Gardener won’t please everyone. And it will render some readers very confused. But as a study it works well enough. Definitely requiring the utmost of your attention, this is a book to really delve into and read slowly.
I received this book for review from Peirene Press.
August 16, 2013, 7:21 am
Though the topic sounds interesting, I don’t think this would be something I would read. I do like character-driven stories, but they have to be balanced with a lively plot. I think that the author’s approach is inventive, however.
August 16, 2013, 4:11 pm
Hmmm…not sure if this is one for me or not!
August 17, 2013, 12:12 pm
Intrigued by your review Charlie. I suspect the lack of differentiation between characters would annoy me but I can also appreciate its artistic intent.