Kristina 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.
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:
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.