Kristina Carlson: Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009)

Mr Darwin's Gardener

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.

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver – Den ärlige bedragaran (1982)

The True Deceiver

Swedish-speaking Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson is most famous for her stories featuring the Moomintroll family and their friends. Their creation spans almost thirty years. The first story came out in the 40s, the last in the seventies. When Tove Jansson was in her 60s she began to write books for adults. Some, like The True Deceiver, are novels, other’s, like Fair Play, are a collection of linked short stories, or episodic novels.

I always wanted to read her work, the books for children just as much as the books for adults, and I have no idea why it took me so long. After having finished The True Deceiver and already started Fair Play, I must say, this is one of those writers whose every book I want to read. She’s such an orginal, refreshing, and highly inspiring writer.

Katri and her younger brother, Mats, live in a village, in an unnamed Nordic country. It’s the deep winter. The land is covered in snow. The lake is frozen. Katri has just resigned from a job for the local merchant. Her brother helps building boats, his biggest wish being a boat of his own. In the same hamlet lives Anna Aemelin, a famous, rich children’s book illustrator. She’s become famous for her detailed depictions of the forest, which she adorns with drawings of rabbits. Katri decides that she wants Anna’s money for her brother. And she wants to get it in an honest way. Now honesty is an elastic term and for Katri it seems to mean— speaking the truth. Anna Aemelin has her own idea of what honesty means. And so does Mats.

The blurb of the English edition tells the reader that Katri fakes a break-in at Anna’s house to convince her she needs companionship, that’s why it’s not a spoiler to mention that she and Mats will move into Anna’s big house.

While the plot is interesting, the book’s strength lies in the characters and the setting. These people are so unusual. All three are eccentrics, each in their own way. And their interests, occupations, their innermost being is so original.

The artist Anna Aemelin was the character I enjoyed the most. Before Katri arrives, she’s not even aware of how much money she made with her illustrations. She lives a very ordered life, following the seasons. In winter, she doesn’t draw. It’s a bit as if she was hibernating. She orders food from the shops, doesn’t go out, and spends her days answering fan letters and reading adventure stories for kids. The books will be the foundation of her friendship with the boy Mats, a friendship that will create tensions between her and Katri. In spring, after the thawing, Anna goes into the forest and draws her pictures.

Katri is mysterious. She resembles a mythical figure, how she walks around with her huge, nameless dog, hardly speaking to anyone.

The way they live and communicate with each other is so peculiar because all three characters are loners. The conflicts between Katri and Anna are fascinating because they are both scheming, but both can’t really lie. But does that make them honest?

The story is set during winter and a huge part of its charm stems from the descriptions of the winter landscape, the harshness of the weather, the isolation of the big rambling house.

I don’t want to say too much. Pick it up and discover this unique writer for yourself. It’s certainly going to make my Top 10 of the year.

I read the German translation. That’s why I can’t offer any quotes. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve already started Fair Play, the story of two women artists. It’s another great find. I also want to read her Moomin stories chronologically and have her biography and a few other novels sitting on my piles. So, be prepared, you might read a lot more about Tove Jansson on this blog in the future.

Tove Jansson