Thomas stops on the gentle slope of a hill. Big, heavy raindrops fall. He lifts his face and stretches his arms straight out. Water drips from the brim of his hat on to his neck and in through his coat collar. He grimaces; he neither laughs nor cries. He remembers Gwyn’s face. – from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 15 –
Thomas Davies lives in the Kentish village of Downe sometime in the late 1870s. His wife, Gwyn, has been dead three years, and yet he still grieves as he gets up every day and shares his life with his two children. Thomas works as a gardener for the controversial Charles Darwin in a time of strict religious piety. The villagers tromp to church each Sunday, while Thomas shuns the God they revere. Thomas is looking for answers – in the fields, the flowers, the plants…he is searching for his own meaning of life which might or might not include God.
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener is another gem of a novella published through Peirene Press. Author Kristina Carlson takes a unique approach to narration in her book, choosing to introduce multiple characters, all of whom tell their story through the first person point of view. The result is a beautiful chorus of voices which reveal not only Thomas’s journey to understanding, but a village’s perception of God and nature and the delicate connection between them all. The reader is introduced to Edwin, the town idiot who “bellows and dribbles“; Robert Kenny, the town doctor, and his wife Mary who are dealing with their own grief after the loss of a child – “Mary cries and I drink“; Stuart Wilkes who dreams up inventions; Eileen Faine who runs the book club for the church women; and many more intricate, complex and hilarious characters.
The question of faith and religion are strongly embedded in the novella. Charles Darwin’s focus on science is contrasted sharply with the idea of a singular God. For Thomas, God and science are intertwined, and Carlson demonstrates this beautifully with gorgeous passages about nature. The flowers, Jackdaw, the weather, butterflies, and hares…all take on life and become characters within the story as the endless cycle of nature unfolds.
Brimstone butterflies with yellow wings and green wings flutter by the side of the ditch. The cat runs after them. It lifts both front paws up into the air and leaps, sinks back to the ground, turns its head, skips, runs. The butterflies fly a yard, two yards, land on the bottom branches of the hawthorn and fold their wings. The sun shines through their wings. The cat crouches. – from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 119 –
Carlson chooses to explore the idea of religion through grief and loss. As Thomas contemplates the loss of his wife, he examines the understanding of death as a natural, albeit painful, part of living. Thomas views death through the lens of how it impacts those left behind.
When Gwyn was dying, I did not think about where she was going, but about what she was leaving. She was abandoning Catherine, John and me. She did not leave abruptly. Death held the door ajar for many months. – from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 40 –
There is a sardonic humor in this story about inner searching, faith and loss. The townspeople are harshly judgmental, and at one point seek revenge in the name of God. Their platitudes about religion come off as ridiculous at times. The hypocrisy in the story is actually quite funny.
Revenge brings great satisfaction. Everyone has stored up things to avenge, but the victim is not always about. So when a common enemy is found, people seize the opportunity – in the name of God, the church or a woman. Or because a country village is somewhat short on entertainment. – from Mr. Darwin’s Gardner, page 52 –
There are wonderful witty moments throughout Mr. Darwin’s Gardner – such as when the women’s book club gets together to discuss a book which no one has had time to read, or when a villager misunderstands what she sees in the field behind Thomas’s house. This lightheartedness keeps everything in perspective…indeed, it is a message of its own. When despair, judgement, and revenge threaten to topple the village…there is a sudden shaft of light which brings hope.
Someone lights a lantern and the flickering flame illuminates the snowfall as the crowd disperses into figures that vanish, shadow-like, through the doors of the houses, each into the light of his own home, and into his own life, which, after a brief, quiet moment, continues its course. – from Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, page 114 –
In the end, Kristina Carlson delivers a story rich and profound with writing that feels like one long poem about what it means to be a human and struggling to understand the greater question of life.
Readers who love translated literature, poetry, and literary fiction will want to add Mr. Darwin’s Gardener to their library.
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review.