Mr Darwin’s Gardener is Also a Thinker

Darwins GardenerKristina Carlson is a native of Finland and has published 16 books there. Like Tove Jansson, whose work I love, she is known for her children’s stories, but also has a wide adult readership. We are fortunate to be reading the recently published and translated work Mr Darwin’s Gardener thanks to Peirene Press, who describe it as “Peirene’s most poetic book yet“.

“Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and through them, the spirit of the age. This is no page-turner, but a story to be inhabited, to be savoured slowly.” Mieke Ziervogel

Less a story than a series of thoughts and observations, though there is one alarming event, it is set in the late 1870’s in the Kentish village of Downe, where Thomas Davies, widower, father of two and the gardener of Charles Darwin, reflects on the dilemma of his life and stays away while the rest of the villagers gather in church.

Just as Mieke Ziervogel suggests, it is a not a book to be absorbed quickly and even when read slowly, it warrants turning back to the beginning and starting over, which is what I did. I read it through twice because once was insufficient for a book whose depth and layers become clearer when we reacquaint with it. To read it once was to see the words on the page and meet the villagers for the first time. To read it again was to begin to understand the collective consciousness of a community and one man who stands outside them, working for another man who is completely out of their reach or comprehension.

Charles Darwin, Author of 'Origin of the Species' Source: wikipedia

Charles Darwin Source: wikipedia

Plants grow, flowers sway, a ray of light streaks through a gap in the clouds, a gardener thinks, women talk, men drink, jackdaws caw, bells ring, a stranger visits and a man writes an article in the newspaper. Like an invisible character hovering over the town, we observe each villager in a random moment just before we inhabit their mind, see what they are thinking and watch what they do, as if we are they. We repeat this sequence from one home to the next and at The Anchor, the local pub where a stranger visits and stays overnight.

The Anchor clinks, clanks, seethes, smokes, susurrates.

The gardener has taken on the role of the village sage,

Though as a rule he barely says good morning.

The tongue is a sort of red carpet. One has to watch what hurries along it.

A gloomy and unhappy man.

But Thomas Davies sits neither in a church pew nor at the bar and he is more often the subject than the purveyor of thoughts, though these are some of his:

Garden at Down House, Darwin's home

Garden at Down House, Darwin’s home

The most beautiful thing about plants is their silence. The second most beautiful thing is their immobility, I wrote when Gywn died. I am reading now, it is evening.

I wrote unscientifically.

Even condolences thundered then, and goodwill would not leave me in peace.

Grief is weighty but it is a stone I bear myself.

Victims of revenge and victims of mercy are in the same position, I believe; other people make their affairs their own.

I may have to read it a third time.

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19 thoughts on “Mr Darwin’s Gardener is Also a Thinker

    • Being foreign fiction, it is rare that we come across this kind of work, which is why I subscribed to Peirene Press, to be introduced to contemporary works of European fiction and it has been a joyous and enlightening reading journey so far.

      I don’t know how much of Kristina Carlson’s work has been translated into English, but very little I guess judging by the entries on Goodreads which are all in Finnish.

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  1. This sounds absolutely beautiful and utterly irresistible Claire. As soon as I’ve pressed the comment button I will be e-mailing a request to the beautiful green-eyed goddess who owns our very special local book-shop, equipped with squishy leather arm-chairs sitting on glowing oriental rugs , and an invitation to sit and browse.
    Thank you Claire, a lovely review which makes the book a must to read…

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    • How wonderful to have enticed you with this book Valerie, I hope the beautiful green-eyed goddess is tempted by more of the wonderful books available from Peirene Press. The bookshop sounds wonderful, you must tell us more so we can send more visitors there, as you can see, you have inspired Vishy as he acknowledges in his comment below. 🙂 and Mr Darwin’s Gardener as with all the Peirene boks are novellas and as such designed to be read in an afternoon, though with this one I recommend one takes a little longer or does as I did and reads it twice or even three times.

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  2. Beautiful review of a beautiful book, Claire. I loved what Mieke Ziervogel said about the book that it “is no page-turner, but a story to be inhabited, to be savoured slowly.” So beautifully put. I liked very much what you said about reading the book multiple times and how during each read the book reveals a new facet and a new secret about itself. I also loved the lines you have quoted, especially the ones about plants and about victims. They are so beautiful and make one think.

    I also loved what Valerie Davies said about her bookshop. I used to have a favourite bookshop like that (without the squishy armchairs though) and sometimes the bookshop owner sat with me for a cup of tea and we used to discuss books and other bookish things. Feeling nostalgic.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, Claire. I am hoping to read ‘The Mussel Feast’ soon and now after reading your thoughts on ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardner’ I want to read this too. Maybe I should subscribe to Peirene press books now 🙂

    I have been a poor commenter in recent times. Today I am planning to do some ‘time travel’ and start with this post and go back and read all yours posts that I missed 🙂 It is a lovely, sunny Saturday here – a wonderful day to read.

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  3. Thank you for all your thoughtful comments Vishy, they are like the icing on the cake of reviews and your sunny Saturday energy has passed through the screen to light up the day here too 🙂 where it is also the perfect morning to read (before the household awakes).

    Those bookshops are a godsend aren’t they (even the memory of them) I do hope they continue to survive, not just because of the wonderful volumes between their walls but the companionable souls that pass through and the conversations they inspire. No wonder Hemingway visited Shakespeare & Co as often as he did, for books and literary conversation.

    I think you would enjoy the Peirene selection, it’s not usually my style to go with one publisher, but reading the books published by Peirene is almost like following a favourite blogger, and being novellas, they truly do offer an afternoon read and an invitation into contemporary European fiction, an alternative to the more populist works which we might encounter otherwise.

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  4. And here’s one for you — while you contemplate reading what sounds like an extraordinary book a third time — ‘Darwin: A Life in Poems’ by Ruth Padel. There is something about Darwin-inspired books that I’m drawn to. And Padel happens to be Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter.

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    • I keep seeing Padel’s name pop up and do you know that Peirene Press have invited Ruth Padel to their winter literary salon in December in London. I am very sad that I will just miss it, her latest book The Mara Crossing is an experimental volume of mixed poetry and prose about migration and sounds wonderful.

      Looking at this quote below now and rereading Deborah Brasket’s comment also below and learning from you that Ruth Padel is Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, and relating it all to Kristina Carlson’s book, well that’s a wonderful lot of connections, isn’t it 🙂

      Migrants, cellular, animal or human, migrate to survive: but human migrations are inextricably mixed with trade, invasion, conquest and empire.

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  5. Beautiful review, Claire. I love what you said about collective consciousness – that’s how it felt to me, too, and it was quite an achievement. It’s very difficult to write about a whole village, but Carlson somehow managed it. All the different names confused me on the first reading, but after a while it all comes together and gives a real picture of a community. I came across your site thanks to Vishy, and am glad I’ve discovered it now!

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    • Thanks for visiting via Vishy and leaving such a wonderful comment Andrew. I do love a slim book that makes one want to go back and understand it’s layers and depth and how exactly a writer might have achieved all that they did.

      I agree with you about the profusion of villager’s names, for me it was partly because I was so eager to continue and find out what was going to happen, a little like watching the first episode of a series (not that I am a TV watcher, the French don’t do series like HBO or the BBC!) and then going back to reread and letting everything click into place, garnering a closer familiarity around all the characters.

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  6. This does sound like a book to be savored. I love the lines about plants silence and immobility. I wrote something about that in a short story once: “Plants are ancestor to humankind. We are but the most emergent and complex form in a shifting scale of changing life forms–high-tech plants, you might say. More mobile and more potent than the earlier models but with brand new and still highly controversial innovations: the urge to create and to destroy.” So much we can learn from our gardens.

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    • I like your way of thinking Deborah, I’ve always thought we too needed to photosynthesise and recently I have been teaching from a text that tells us about the severe myopia of high school children in SE Asia, due to the lack of exposure to natural outdoor light, 90% of students have a form of myopia and 1 in 5 it is serious. Humans need to spend at least 3 hours a day outdoors in natural light to prevent such a visual impairment – ironic that it didn’t even mention computers, but of course they often keep people indoors as well. We must continue to be mobile and receive all that sustenance that plants know so well. 🙂

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