Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

21329091Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. Peirene Press, 2013. Originally published 2009. 112 pgs. Library copy.

In the late 1870s, Thomas Davies works in the village of Downe in Kent, England as a gardener for the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin. Davies does not believe in any given religion and refuses to attend church with the rest of the villagers at the start of the novella. Having recently lost his wife Gwyneth, Davies is struggling with his grief and with the uncertainty of becoming the sole parent to two disabled children.

“I know that death is not what a suicide really wants; in fact, he wants his old life back. But you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse. As I grow older and older, I begin to forget things. Evil deeds disappear, and the good ones fade after five minutes.”

Interrupting his musings on grief is the return of the former verger of Downe, Daniel Lewis. Dismissed for stealing from the church, Lewis is beaten by the villagers upon his return. The violent reaction is contemplated within the story by Davies and other townspeople.

“Revenge brings great satisfaction. Everyone has stored up things to avenge, but the victim is not always about. So when a common enemy is found, people seize the opportunity – in the name of God, the church or a woman. Or because a country village is somewhat short of entertainment.”

In a way, Carlson’s novel reminds me of the works of Thomas Hardy. The focus is not on the famous resident of Downe; rather, the novella concerns itself with the thoughts and experiences of the “common man”. And, in fact, this reason is why Meike Ziervogel, publisher of Peirene Press, says the book was selected because

“…Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age. The apparent tensions between science and spirituality, Darwinism and humanism, reach a beautiful, life-affirming resolution.”

To be frank, the tensions Ziervogel mentions are very subtle, and I didn’t find them to be the real beauty within the novel. Rather, the characters’ contemplation of grief, the future, and the dynamics of village life and the way Carlson constructed them into poetic and snappy sentences were what captured my attention. And then held it as the story became even lighter on plot.

“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”

Carlson mixes the past and present tense across the five chapters included in the story, and the narration changes from first-person and third-person as the story progresses. It is a style choice that takes some getting use to, but is worth working through in order to enjoy the gem sentences hidden within.

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