Mr Darwin’s Gardener is Also a Thinker, Kristine Carlson

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.

The Mussel Feast

Revolutionary Moments

Mussel FeastThe first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.

This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.

There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.

Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.

The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.

An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.

The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.

“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke

Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener  by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…

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