Mr Darwin’s Gardener
This is not so much the story of Thomas Davies, the gardener, as of the villagers of Downe and the way in which the presence among them of Charles Darwin heightens their self-awareness and their sense of enquiry into things best left alone: the existence of God, the wages of sin, the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the modes of thought of women and men. On the surface as traditionally English as Cranford or St. Mary Meade, Carlson’s Downe, filtered through the observing eye of the outsider (Carlson is Finnish), is set apart by the way in which she delves into and articulates the consciousness of those stalwarts of English village life – the shopkeeper, the landlord, the doctor, and their wives and daughters. Davies the gardener, grieving inordinately for his dead wife, left with two children who are ‘not quite right’, provides a focus for their troubled and rebellious ruminations.
Carlson has created an extraordinary communal voice, translated here into an elegant, pared-down English. By using multiple first persons, she blurs the boundaries between individuals and makes the villagers speak with a collective consciousness whose presumptions of morality are confounded by the godless gardener whose grief is ultimately consoled by nature, the coming of spring after winter.
This is a beautiful book, post-modern in the best sense, in that its author has not allowed narrative convention to interfere with what she has to say and how she wants to say it. It has no plot as such but is driven by the power of its voice, ‘the soft reinforcement of the four-stranded rope’, as Davies characterises the strength of his own family. A lovely meditation on the human spirit and its capacity to endure.