My subscription to the 2013 season of Peirene Press novellas/short novels is chugging along nicely—the second of the collection turned up on my doorstep several weeks ago. I very much enjoyed the first Peirene book I read, and though there’s really nothing connecting this novel—a contemporary Finnish novel from Kristina Carson—with the last—an 80s novel from Germany—Peirene has made a name for itself by being a brand of a certain kind of novel. Does this novel, then, reach the heights of The Mussel Feast?
The blurb of Mr Darwin’s Gardener proudly proclaims that this is a postmodern Victorian novel. That doesn’t make a lot of sense; the schools of Victorianism and postmodernism are, I would argue, almost diametrically opposed—not just in the obvious, superficial stylistic features, but in their very world view. Victorian novels are famed for their moral and moralistic stances on issues of the times; postmodern novels revel in the presentation of multiple points of view, ensuring they do not privilege any particular stance.
Having said all this, there is a way to arrive at a kind of syncretic point between the two: John Fowles managed to take postmodern sensibilities—the idea of an unreliable narrative structure—and put them into an ostensibly Victorian context and framework in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The most obviously postmodern technique Carlson uses in her novel is her use of shifting perspectives. Opening paragraphs of sections begin in the third person, but every paragraph after that is told in first person, our narrator being the previously mentioned character. It fractures the narrative, creating a kaleidoscope of points of view, each one slightly different. We are allowed into the minds of so many people in this small village, each one similar, but just different enough to be recognised.
What does shine through all of this stylistic pyrotechnics is the idea that a closed-minded, small-world-thinking culture is potentially harmful to those who don’t share the same view. In many ways, it is a critique of the small-mindedness of Victorian sensibilities, particularly when it comes to things like science, love and illness.
These Victorian values are particularly apparent in the small town’s mob reaction to two events. The first is Thomas’ moving to the village. Having no wife, forced to bring up his two young children by himself, there are constant whisperings about his own ability to do so. The second is a singularly poignant event in which, the small-town mob having discovered an extramarital affair, take it upon themselves to dole out gang justice on the man who undertook said affair.
As the title would suggest, the other theme running through the novel is the collision of religion and science. Thomas was, indeed, the titular gardener, and though his wife has died, he still clings to the ideals science promotes, placing him in direct opposition to many of the people in the village. Though we don’t hear from Thomas often in this cacophony of narrators, his concerns for his children—as well as his consideration of the inherent tension between these two modes of thinking—mark him out as perhaps the most intelligent of those we meet.
Carlson’s novel never quite hits the heights of Fowles’ masterpiece. Ironically, perhaps, it never feels quite focused enough on any one character to leave any kind of lasting impression. While Peirene’s previous offering, The Mussel Feast, used its short length to its advantage, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, while being an impressive feat of style, perhaps overreaches itself in its attempt to satirise so many individuals in a short space.