Peirene Press’ theme for this year’s trio of novellas is ‘turning point’ and both of those so far published take the approach of channelling wider revolutions through small scale stories. In The Mussel Feast East German politics are viewed via a domestic setting and, though Mr Darwin’s Gardener takes its examination of science versus religion outside the house, it never leaves the small English village of Downe in which Darwin has chosen to spend his retirement. Not that Darwin features in the novel as anything other than an over-arching presence; the focus here is on the lives of the villagers presented to us in a mosaic of voices.
The ‘post-modern’ element of the novel, referred to on the back cover, is evident immediately in the invigorating and thrilling way the first few pages challenge the reader to make sense of a series of different perspectives, including chickens and sparrows, and Mr Darwin’s gardener, Thomas Davies. This is the way the novel will reveal itself: a series of short sections beginning in third person but swiftly zooming in to first:
“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 darky and grunted something.”
Carlson uses this technique in the opening chapter to introduce us to Davies and his relationship with the village: he is mistrusted because of his rejection of religion, particularly as a consolation after his wife’s death. This, along with his employment, links him to Darwin and his assault on religion via his theory of evolution. As the voice of the congregation says in chapter 2:
“When a man sets up new false gods for himself such as Science and the Doctrine of Evolution, he mocks our Lord, Creator of Everything, and so he is punished.”
Chapter 2 is a bravura example of Carslon’s style: it begins in the group voice of the congregation but then disintegrates into individual voices as the congregation leave the church – but then so is the first chapter of the second part where the arrival of a stranger is told in a series of perspective shifting paragraphs over three pages. The novel is worth reading for the dexterity the writer shows with this technique alone.
Carlson’s style allows her to explore the challenge to religion not in rational debate (in the ‘village debating society’ in the Anchor we find a series of quotations from unidentified speakers often only vaguely related) but through the needs and fears of individuals. In an interview about the novel she said:
“God is in the picture, because the church was still a strong influence on social life in the late 19th century, despite the fact that secularism – as well as industrialisation and capitalism – were gaining ground. But I think the essential thing is that people’s loneliness and despair is crying out for a god, and everyone seems to have a god suited to their own needs “
The debate between science and religion is not seen as one to be won or lost but as more complex than that, occurring differently within individuals. It is no surprise, therefore, that the novel ends with a question that will never be answered.