Mr Darwin’s GardenerKristina Carlson
A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.
The late 1870s, the Kentish village of Downe. The villagers gather in church one rainy Sunday. Only Thomas Davies stays away. The eccentric loner, father of two and a grief-stricken widower, works as a gardener for the notorious naturalist Charles Darwin. He shuns religion. But now Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?
LONG-LISTED FOR INTERNATIONAL IMPAC DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD 2015
OBSERVER BEST HOLIDAY READS 2013
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
This is Peirene’s most poetic book yet. A tale of God, grief and talking chickens. Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, 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.
Written by Kristina Carlson.
Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah.
Turning Point series
112pp, paperback with flaps, £12.00
Kristina Carlson, born in 1949, has published 16 books in her native Finland. She is a highly popular children’s author and her three novels have assured her a wide adult readership and huge critical acclaim. She has won The Finlandia Prize and Finland’s State Prize for Literature.
Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah form a multilingual mother-and-daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish and has translated both fiction and non-fiction for many years. Emily and Fleur have co-translated work by numerous Finnish poets and novelists. They have translated three Peirene books: Peirene no. 7, The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg; Peirene no. 11, Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson; and Peirene no. 16, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen.
‘The translation is terrific and the author’s grasp of England circa 1880 is utterly convincing.’ Salley Vickers, Observer
‘It’s hard to believe this novel originated in another country. But it did, and the way Carlson shows us to ourselves should make us wonder.’ Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
‘An imaginative series of insights into the outer and inner lives of the inhabitants of the village of Downe in Kent in the 1870’s.’ Rosemary Ashton, Times Literary Supplement
‘Allow layers of meaning to emerge after you finish reading, and you may be rewarded.’ Harriet Paterson, The Tablet
‘Rich, short, text, well-pitched and nuanced, short but wide. It may not have length, but its literary girth is undeniable. A beautiful, charming little book.’ The Triumph of the Now
Edwin lopes along the road, picking his nose.
Jackdaws caw in the steeple:
grey morning! grey day! grey village! grey people!
the man’s loping! like a dog! big dog! heavy paws! long muzzle!
the woman’s flinging grain! to the chickens! the chickens, chickens, chickens! destined for the pot!
ha ha! ha ha!
sparrows! bells in the bushes! the big bells will soon ring out!
hark! hark! in! out! in! out!
into the church and back again!
Hannah Hamilton looks out of the window.
Thomas Davies is walking past. A big man, shoulders stooped, head bowed, he stares at mud and puddles.
Coffee scalds the roof of my mouth. No need to go to church. Being old, I am spared all that. No one asks for my views on God, and as for what He thinks of me: not an inkling.
The way Thomas walks, he cannot see beyond his toes. He looks at the right shoe and then at the left shoe. One is always in front of the other. Just walk and you will know which is right, right or left.
In my wheelchair I roll easily to the stove. No need to dwell on rightness. Sarah takes great pains to make sure that curtains and cushions and ornaments are comme il faut. She says commilfoh. Sarah offers me comfort merely because I am old, ah and oh, and then her look drills a hole in my head as if to make it leak what she thirsts to know. She is terribly nosy.
Shoo, shoo! Off the table, mog! Being a cat, it pays no heed, of course.
Thomas Davies strides along the road. I feel sorry for him because his wife died and the children are not quite right. I can guess what he is mulling over. You can see the heaviness of his head in the way he carries himself.
He is thinking of death.
Perhaps he plans to take the children with him. Then there would be no one left behind to grieve.
I know that death is not what a suicide really wants; in fact, he wants his old life back. But you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse. As I grow older and older, I begin to forget things. Evil deeds disappear, and the good ones fade after five minutes.
Sarah is adjusting her bonnet, umbrella, hair and expression to make them fit for church. With advancing years, she has started leading even God by the nose. Before, she did not care twopence for Him; now, if she is beating a feather duvet and five bits of fluff fly into the air, she fancies the heavenly troops are on the march. As long as the service lasts, I shall have peace, thank the Lord. No sign now of anyone on the road.
Jennifer Kenny is folding clean sheets on the kitchen table, even though it is Sunday. She looks out of the window. Thomas Davies, the gardener whose wife died, strides along the road. I took soup and bread to the house of mourning but he merely stared darkly and grunted something – not even a dog would have understood. I do not know what the wife died of. A dark, taciturn woman, she went before her time. I use all available weapons in my fight against unfair death, from clean balls of cotton wool and iodine and suture and Beecham’s Pills to onion milk, chicken soup and sugared tea. I often lose, though. As a last resort, one must open the windows and get some fresh air – when someone reaches the corpse stage, for instance.
I shake the bottle and sprinkle lavender water on to the fabric. I roll the sheets up tight, I put the iron on the stove to heat, I go to the window. It is drizzling outside and there is no one to be seen on the road.
The hot iron hisses on the white fabric. Godlessness does not evaporate in church; rather, it thickens when there is a crowd.
Chickens cluck in Bailey’s yard:
jack-daws rabb-le grey-coats think they are bet-ter than ver-ger and vic-ar when the bell tolls the who-ole crowd dis-per-ses all souls burst out soot fla-kes.
Sparrows in the holm oak chirp:
he-heaven and ear-earth belong to the li-little ones the li-little ones will see Go-god who is hi-hidden from the gre-great ones small be-bells ti-tinkle in the ear from mor-morning till eve-evening he who has e-ears let him li-listen but tho-those who bl-blow their own trum-trumpets like ja¬jackdaws and chi-chickens do not he-hear tweet-twit-tweet.
Thomas Davies walks to Down House even though it is Sunday. He is Mr Darwin’s gardener. Mr Darwin is a
famous personage who receives visitors from London and all over the world.
Nothing will grow in the shade of a dense old spruce. But Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks. A wheelbarrow lies overturned on the lawn. Thomas lifts it up by the handles and pushes it to the holm-oak hedge. A thrush, wings folded, lies on the ground there. Thomas bends down and lifts the bird on to his palm but he feels only his own pulse. The speckled head hangs, beak ajar, on bloodied fibres. The bird is dead, though the feathered body is still warm. Thomas guesses that the thrush was prey to the young ginger tom. The cat does not eat birds, it just practises killing.
The air smells of soil, rotting leaves and smoke. Low pressure makes the smoke from the house’s chimneys glide along the roof. In the grey light, cabbage and lettuce heads glow green. Thomas does not work on Sundays, but where would he rather go? Home is stifling, though he does love the children. He walks along the road and on the hills and in the garden quite as if he were able to stride faster than thoughts. You can forget the need to live if there is something else to do.
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 strolls 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, hornbeams, 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 the wet earth, the smell of mould wafts out of the long flattened grass.
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. Before her death, her features shrivelled up, small, yellow and wrinkled. Thomas stands on the slope, his mouth open, but his cry rings out only in his head: Let me out! Help! He gulps, coughs, shakes himself. Drops fly off the woollen cloth in all directions. Shut up! Have some sense! The bells of St Mary’s Church ring. You can seek help from heaven, because it is the only place with no people. Raindrops keep falling. Each drop carries the sound of the bells, and the soil sucks in the echo.
For Reading Groups
Get some inspiration for your reading group with our questions about the book:
1 Why do you think that nature is anthropo- morphised in the book? Does giving nature a voice support the theory of evolution or mock it?
2 How successful is the narrative in capturing the voice of both the village and its individual inhabitants?
3 What motivates the faith of the villagers? Is religion a personal experience or a communal necessity?
4 How do the villagers feel about Thomas Davies? Why and how is he portrayed as an outsider?
5 What is the role of grief in the text? How is it explored?
6 What does the text tell us about human relationships, such as marriages, relationships between parents and children or a vicar and his congregation? Are we that different to the animals that also have a voice?
7 There is emphasis placed on the theme of illness, why might this be important? How could it relate to the Theory of Evolution?
8 Do you think that Darwinism and Creationism can be separated?
9 What similarities can be drawn to Dylan Thomas’ Under the Milk Wood?
10 Are the descriptions of seasons and the rural, English setting important to the structure and plot of the text?
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