Mr Darwin’s Gardener

I’ve been taking a bit of a blogging break since the busyness of last month, but I wanted to get back into it with a review for Translation Thursday. Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson and translated from the Finnish by Emily and FMr Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson, tr. Emily & Fleur Jeremiahleur Jeremiah is the latest Peirene Press book and part of their Turning Point series. The blurb is intriguing:

A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.

It is set in Downe, Kent, in the 1870s. The gardener in question is Thomas Davies, an “eccentric loner, a grief-stricken widower” who does indeed work for Charles Darwin. Given that I have family connections with that part of the world, I was particularly interested by the premise of the book, which according to publisher Meike Ziervogel

evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age.

The first time I tried to read it, though, I got no further than the first chapter. My head wasn’t in the right space to be able to cope with talking chickens, jackdaws and sparrows, and I found the constant switching of perspective and voice confusing. The thought of a whole book of that, however short, was too much for me and I put it aside.

I came back to it again last week and, to my surprise, got into it right away. It’s still an odd, tricksy kind of book but beautifully written. It captures the sense of a village as a gossipy, interwoven place. Outsiders coming in can upset the balance and set off really rather dramatic events, but at the same time the everyday life carries on. The shopkeeper and pub landlord have their businesses to run, there are Bible studies and sewing circles and so on. Yet bubbling away beneath all this are the thoughts and emotions of individuals, resentments, judgements, opinions, private loves, ambitions and passions.

In some ways, as Nicholas Lezard said in his Guardian review, it is “hard to believe this novel originated in another country”, it seems so steeped in English village life. Clearly this is largely due to the skill of mother and daughter translation team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah. But perhaps it is also looking on from the outside, from another country and another time, that gives Carlson the distance to see so clearly.

OK, there were a few words that niggled me, phrasings that seemed slightly anachronistic for the 1870s, but this is surely a book that will repay rereading. (If I ever get time, that is!)

English: Caricature of Charles Darwin from Van...

English: Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair magazine. Caption read “Natural Selection”. He doesn’t actually come into the story at all. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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