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Mr. Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Mr. Darwin's Gardener

by Kristina Carlson

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English (7)  Finnish (2)  Czech (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I loved this short novel. It punches above its weight on a lot of levels. It is one of the few novels I've wanted to turn back to page 1 and read again when I got to the end.

Thomas Davies is an aethiest, and Charles Darwin's gardener. His wife has died, and he is left to raise his two young children alone, both of whom have health issues. We see him through his own thinking, and through the eyes of the village.

The novel captures the claustrophobia of rural village life, with its eccentric participants and its obsessions.

In its 122 pages we have nature, an exquisite evocation of silence, God and the lack of God. Desires and limitations.

Somewhere I read that the novel shared a style of Dylan Thomas's [Under Milk Wood], which I can see. It also put me in mind of a pared back Thomas Hardy novel. Carlson really captured English rural village life of the time, which maybe is not hugely different from its Finnish equivalent.

I found this little article about Carlson and her slow writing.

  Caroline_McElwee | Jan 27, 2019 |
This is probably a classic example of a book that shouldn't have been translated. Setting a historical novel in a foreign country is often a good idea, because it allows you to avoid getting caught up on silly points of linguistic and cultural detail ("...he couldn't have used that word in 1879") and concentrate on the story and the ideas you're trying to communicate. Instead of being a novel about a specific place at a specific time, it becomes a novel about how small communities work, how ideas about religion and science are taken up by uneducated people, and so on. But then you translate it into English, and it becomes a novel about the village of Downe in Kent, set between November 1879 and Spring 1881. English literature is full of descriptions of village communities in the south-east of England; everyone from Dickens, Kipling and H.G. Wells to George Orwell and H.E. Bates has contributed to giving English readers a very specific idea of how society functions in such a place, and how we should expect people from different classes and backgrounds to talk. It probably isn't a completely realistic idea, and we certainly mix up notions from different places and periods, but of course it doesn't bear any relationship to the very stylised, abstract version of village life we get from Carlson, where class-relationships are only hinted at and there's no differentiation between the way characters from different levels of society speak (to each other, or to the reader) except in the choice of images they use.

Of course, this - coupled with the fact that Carlson has obviously done her research quite carefully - makes an English reader over-attentive to places where people act or speak in ways that just aren't right for that place and time. In the opening pages a woman is doing her ironing on a Sunday - it's never mentioned again, but in a real English village that would have been discussed and held against her for the next forty years. A few pages on, a sermon in church urges that "we must warn our fellow men of the rocks of sin, and shine more brightly than the lamps of the wise virgins. Like the Eddystone Lighthouse" - but the Eddystone lighthouse had fallen down and was being rebuilt in 1879 (are we supposed to know that and see the irony?). A bit further on we are told that "Lewis sent Margaret into a spin" - nothing wrong with using an aeronautical image when your nearest neighbour is Biggin Hill aerodrome, but you should at least wait until after the invention of powered flight. And lots more little things like that.

That also makes you wonder a bit what Downe was really like in 1879. These days it's only just outside London, and even then it can't have been much more than half an hour away from central London by train, and it must already have been in the process of being taken over by rich men's villas and golf clubs. And people from Down would certainly have gone off to work in London. But no "outsider" figures crop up except Darwin, who is offstage, presumably writing his little book on earthworms. For all the contact we have with the outside world, we might just as well be somewhere in the depths of Hardy's Wessex (or in rural Finland...).

Of course, this isn't what we're supposed to be thinking about. Carlson wants us to reflect on the whole Victorian dilemma about science and religion from a different viewpoint, not the usual top-down London intellectual view. Fair enough, but Edmund Gosse has already got that covered pretty well, so I don't know if she really adds anything.

Peirene tell us that we should be comparing the book with Under Milk Wood. Again, fair enough, although perhaps it's a slightly unfortunate comparison when the only Welshman in the book doesn't seem to display any evidence of his nationality at all. As Dylan Thomas does, Carlson creates the village by letting the villagers speak directly to the audience, but a novel is a very different medium from a radio play, where we had Richard Burton to mediate between us and the unadorned text. ( )
  thorold | Dec 16, 2017 |
For those with a taste for poetry, 20 Nov. 2016

This review is from: Mr Darwin's Gardener (Paperback)
Didn't make it through this book (described on front page as Peirene's most poetic book with similarities to Under Milk Wood)
Rather than getting the reader interested in the title character - unhappy Thomas Davies, bereaved of his wife and left with two children who are 'not quite right' - it's written in a very poetic, strange fashion (I wonder if these bits have translated well from the Finnish?)
The good Christians of the village look smugly out of Sunday service at the embittered man outside, rejecting their accepted way of things. They speak like a Greek chorus, berating his godlessness.
Didn't get a great deal further I'm afraid altho' it's only a short (122p) book. ( )
  starbox | Nov 20, 2016 |
Thomas stops on the gentle slope of a hill. Big, heavy raindrops fall. He lifts his face and stretches his arms straight out. Water drips from the brim of his hat on to his neck and in through his coat collar. He grimaces; he neither laughs nor cries. He remembers Gwyn’s face. - from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 15 -

Thomas Davies lives in the Kentish village of Downe sometime in the late 1870s. His wife, Gwyn, has been dead three years, and yet he still grieves as he gets up every day and shares his life with his two children. Thomas works as a gardener for the controversial Charles Darwin in a time of strict religious piety. The villagers tromp to church each Sunday, while Thomas shuns the God they revere. Thomas is looking for answers – in the fields, the flowers, the plants…he is searching for his own meaning of life which might or might not include God.

iMr. Darwin’s Gardener is another gem of a novella published through Peirene Press. Author Kristina Carlson takes a unique approach to narration in her book, choosing to introduce multiple characters, all of whom tell their story through the first person point of view. The result is a beautiful chorus of voices which reveal not only Thomas’s journey to understanding, but a village’s perception of God and nature and the delicate connection between them all. The reader is introduced to Edwin, the town idiot who “bellows and dribbles“; Robert Kenny, the town doctor, and his wife Mary who are dealing with their own grief after the loss of a child – “Mary cries and I drink“; Stuart Wilkes who dreams up inventions; Eileen Faine who runs the book club for the church women; and many more intricate, complex and hilarious characters.

The question of faith and religion are strongly embedded in the novella. Charles Darwin’s focus on science is contrasted sharply with the idea of a singular God. For Thomas, God and science are intertwined, and Carlson demonstrates this beautifully with gorgeous passages about nature. The flowers, Jackdaw, the weather, butterflies, and hares…all take on life and become characters within the story as the endless cycle of nature unfolds.

Brimstone butterflies with yellow wings and green wings flutter by the side of the ditch. The cat runs after them. It lifts both front paws up into the air and leaps, sinks back to the ground, turns its head, skips, runs. The butterflies fly a yard, two yards, land on the bottom branches of the hawthorn and fold their wings. The sun shines through their wings. The cat crouches. - from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 119 -

Carlson chooses to explore the idea of religion through grief and loss. As Thomas contemplates the loss of his wife, he examines the understanding of death as a natural, albeit painful, part of living. Thomas views death through the lens of how it impacts those left behind.

When Gwyn was dying, I did not think about where she was going, but about what she was leaving. She was abandoning Catherine, John and me. She did not leave abruptly. Death held the door ajar for many months. - from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 40 -

There is a sardonic humor in this story about inner searching, faith and loss. The townspeople are harshly judgmental, and at one point seek revenge in the name of God. Their platitudes about religion come off as ridiculous at times. The hypocrisy in the story is actually quite funny.

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 on entertainment. - from Mr. Darwin’s Gardner, page 52 -

There are wonderful witty moments throughout Mr. Darwin’s Gardner – such as when the women’s book club gets together to discuss a book which no one has had time to read, or when a villager misunderstands what she sees in the field behind Thomas’s house. This lightheartedness keeps everything in perspective…indeed, it is a message of its own. When despair, judgement, and revenge threaten to topple the village…there is a sudden shaft of light which brings hope.

Someone lights a lantern and the flickering flame illuminates the snowfall as the crowd disperses into figures that vanish, shadow-like, through the doors of the houses, each into the light of his own home, and into his own life, which, after a brief, quiet moment, continues its course. - from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 114 -

In the end, Kristina Carlson delivers a story rich and profound with writing that feels like one long poem about what it means to be a human and struggling to understand the greater question of life.

Readers who love translated literature, poetry, and literary fiction will want to add Mr. Darwin’s Gardener to their library.

Highly recommended. ( )
  writestuff | Jul 21, 2013 |
Set in the 1870s in the village where Charles Darwin lives, the book ranges over not just Mr Darwin's Gardener, but many of the villagers. The perspective swings between them like eye-witnesses as they pass judgement upon science, technology, morals, propriety -- and of course each other. At a time of change in attitudes to religion and science, aspects of village life stand still. Against this backdrop, Mr Darwin's Gardener must cope with personal change, grieving the loss of his wife and finding a way to continue for himself and his young family. ( )
1 vote rrmmff2000 | May 3, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carlson, Kristinaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jeremiah, EmilyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jeremiah, FleurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Piskoř, VladimírTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Should not the multitude of words be answered? and should a man full of talk be justified?----------------
For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass's colt.
Zophar speaks to Job: JOB 11:2, 11:12
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Edwin lopes along the road, picking his nose.
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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?
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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 botanist, Charles Darwin. But Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?… (more)

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