Review: Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

PEIRENE PRESS, 2013/2009

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?

‘A stunning, poetic work. Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age. The apparent tensions between science and spirituality, Darwinism and humanism, reach a beautiful, life-affirming resolution.’ – Meike Ziervogel

I came upon Mr Darwin’s Gardener soon after Peirene Press had picked up White Hunger to be translated, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the title before – considering that the book is translated from my native Finnish. As I started looking up reviews of the book, all the reviews I read were very positive and having now read the book, I can see why. Similarly to The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I discovered a gem of Finnish literature through translation!

Mr Darwin’s Gardener is set in a small country village of Downe in Kent in the 1870s – most notably known as the home of scientist Charles Darwin. Tomas Davies, who works as Mr Darwin’s gardener, has recently been widowed and has, consequently, drawn away from the village society. The villagers look after one another, although mainly from behind of the window glass, and at the heart of the story lies their reaction to a member distancing himself from the community. However, aside from the problem of Mr. Davies, every villager has their own problems and hidden aspirations. For example, Mary Kenny wants to be a writer but never has the time to write and Rosemary Rowe hides something from her husband. By switching the focus of the narration from one character to another, Carlson not only shows the village life from many perspectives but also presents the power of the collective consciousness and how it affects those within the circle as well as those outside.

I absolutely adored Mr Darwin’s Gardener with its thought-provoking passages, glimpses of life and the poetic writing that balanced it all. However, I must admit that this book is not for those who want to read a book as quickly as possible. I actually started the book twice, because the first time around I just couldn’t get my head around it. Nevertheless, the strangeness of the multiple voices gradually became clearer and won me over. The writing style and the layers of the story make it utterly engrossing; how something so strange and at the same time so intricate and cleverly constructed has been written is beyond me. Moreover, Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation carries the lyrical aspect of the text extremely well and I can’t wait to read this also in its original form. Mr Darwin’s Gardener is not a very conventional novel as it doesn’t focus on around a single event but offers snapshots of varying scenes that weave together. The one character notably missing from the village life is Mr Darwin himself, although he is often remembered in the discussions of the villagers.

All in all, Mr Darwin’s Gardener was such an enthralling experience that I find it hard to express just how much I enjoyed it. It’s definitely one of my favourite reads of this year. If you are looking for lyrical and poetic writing, discussions on the dichotomy of religion and science, or a book about life in the Kentish countryside in 1870s, you should definitely look up this book.


I have decided that the cover of the book should not be too dark and the front page will have a simple gravure. The typeface must be discreet so that the book does not scream at you. It should look elegant and appeal to intelligent persons, not women who buy cheap little booklets, Mary Kenny says.

Mary Kenny says: My reader is certain to be an educated woman. She won’t put the book down just because the author’s name is still unknown. No, she will leaf through the pages, taking care not to bend them. I am going to demand a proper binding, so that people can read the book in bed comfortably. On the other hand, if my reader were to start reading at night, perhaps she would not be able to stop and go to sleep. I will begin writing really quite soon.


7 thoughts on “Review: Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

  1. After having just read The Signature of All Things, which overlaps the same time period and incorporates some of the same themes (science and religion), this sounds very good to me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • Hmm.. maybe I should also check out The Signature of All Things. I’ve only read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert–which I didn’t really enjoy–but I’ve heard that her newer works are much, much better.

    • Thank you for your comment! I read your review (which was lovely!) and I agree that reading the book again definitely provides a deeper understanding of the story and its characters.

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