Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a novella by Finnish author Kristina Carlson. In her native Finland, she’s a popular children’s book author but has also written three highly acclaimed books for adults, one of which is Mr Darwin’s Gardener.
The blurb calls this novel “A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.” The main character is Thomas Davis, Darwin’s gardener. A loner and widower whose faith and trust in life are tested. Not only has he lost his wife but his children are sickly. Since he shuns religion, he can’t even find solace in the church. When the book begins he’s not sure life is still worth living. This sounds conventional enough but the way this novella is presented is anything but. The “story” is told by multiple narrators. The effect is that of a chorus. Kristina Carlson dips in and out of various POVs, often switching from first to third within a paragraph. I could have gotten used to that if the 1st and the 3rd POV had been that of the same person, but very often, that wasn’t the case. The transitions were blurred most of the time and since there were so many characters it was confusing at times. It would have helped, if there had been a change in voice and tone, but Kristina Carlson used the same voice and tone throughout the novel. The way the narrators spoke about faith and destiny, was the only way to distinguish one person from another.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed large parts of the book, because of the descriptions. This book contains some of the most exquisite and precise nature descriptions I’ve come across. And they do serve a purpose. This is a novel about faith, and about a very specific point in time. Darwin’s books challenges the Bible, contradicting it, questioning it. What did a person have when the person lost his/her faith?— nature. Those detailed descriptions reminded me of some very detailed religious paintings. A believer would find much solace in their minutiae. And so, Thomas Davis finds solace in contemplating nature, following its change through the seasons. Its never-ending cycle is a consolation.
Here’s a quote to illustrate her writing
A shadow flits across one of the dark windowpanes of Down House and Thomas is startled. He straightens up, shoves his hands into his pockets and stools to the back gate. Herbs and cabbages grow in a bed where Mr Darwin once cultivated yellow toadflax. The villagers thought it was a mere weed, and of course dahlias and asters are more beautiful, though the nature of beauty is mysterious. By the footpath grow hazel, alders, elms, birches, hornbeam, privet, dogwood and holm oak. Mr Darwin had them planted decades ago. Thomas turns and wanders across the meadow. When the heels of his boots sink into wet earth, the smell of mould wafts out of the long flattened grass.
A book about faith, religion, destiny, bigotry and hope, with accurate and gorgeous nature descriptions. Not a breezy book by any means, but one that’s exquisitely crafted.
This is book five of my 20 under 200 project.
20 thoughts on “Kristina Carlson: Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009)”
I can copy with multiple POVs etc if they’re well delineated – for example, Woolf’s The Waves, which could be just confusing but isn’t. But changes of tense tend to annoy me….. 🙂
I’ve read The Waves but too long ago to remember. I think it wasn’t as confusing as this one though.
Great review as always Caroline.
Many of the elements that you mention make this book sound very appealing to me.
The lack of differentiation among in the voices of the different characters sounds like sloppy writing however. I wonder why the author was not more careful about this.
Thank you, Brian. I’m sorry if I gave the impression it was sloppy writing. It’s not. It’s very tight but I found it confusing. I do belive though, that was her intention. It has many great elements nonetheless.
I saw this in the Peirene catalogue it does very much appealed. I can see that multi POV could be problematic especially in a short novel which I believe Peirene Press books all are.
Yes, they only publish short books. I never have a problem with multiple POVs but in this case I found it confusing. Too many people.
Excellent review, Caroline – very useful indeed. I love the Peirene concept and the diversity of their list, but I wasn’t sure about the description of this one. The focus on nature certainly appeals, but the other aspects less so. I think I’ll pass on this one as I already own the three novellas from this year’s Chance Encounters series.
Thanks, Jacqui. They publish so many interesting books. This has some lovely writing, but I would say, some of their other books are maybe a tad more worthwhile.
Nice review, Caroline. I think the multiple POVs would detract for me. Usually they are clearly delineated and I appreciate that.
Thanks, Carole. I don’t think you’d enjoy this as a whole. But its parts, yes.
I’m a fan of the Peirene novels too but yet to get to this one… ‘some of the most exquisite and precise nature descriptions’ certainly grabs my attention.
I’m also very intrigued by the change in pov but with no differentiating voice or tone; wonder if Carlson’s intention was avant-garde or just poor execution on that aspect?
Great review… certainly has me looking forward to this one😊
It’s avant-garde. The execution is flawless but I didn’t like the way she did it. But the descriptions are amazing. Other readers liked it much better. I think there’s even a guardian review.
I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Will let you know when I get to it & thanks for tip off re Guardian review☺
I like the sound of this but alas, my library system doesn’t have it. The way the multiple narrators are handled could be a bit of a problem, though – I’ve never liked Woolf’s The Waves as much as her other books for this very reason. You do make it sound interesting, however, so I shall keep my eye out for it.
“What did a person have when the person lost his/her faith?— nature.”
I think that for many of us without faith to begin with, nature is our great comfort and solace – at least it is for me. I feel most at peace when I’m in the middle of nowhere with just the Universe all around.
I feel like that as well. Nature is awe-inpsiring. And brings comfort.
At first when I read this I didn’t really get that this might have been a major element but then I noticed that most nature descriptions were from Thomas’ point of view.
I’m not sure about the Victorian elment though. I’m reading one of Judith Flanders’ books and noticed that a few things Kristina Carlson mentioned were contemporary (like reading in bed -something the Victorians apparently never did). Yeah well. Nobody said it was accuarte. It’s still lovely and interesting.
Juts checked my own review of this from 2013, but I seem to have enjoyed the multiple viewpoints, which I note included chickens and sparrows! (In fact, I seem to have rather raved about that aspect of the novel to the exclusion of almost everything else!)
I saw one or two other reviews and the reactions were similar to yours. Interesting that te descriptions didn’t make an impression.
It does sound intentional as you say, the points of view similarity thing, but still perhaps annoying even if intentional. Probably not for me, though I note 1streading’s reaction which is interesting.
It was intentional. The writing is really tight, so you can tell.
I found 1st readings reaction interesting too. As I found out meanwhile, I’m in a minority who didn’t get along with it.