Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Title: The Constant Gardener
Author: John le Carre
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton (2001)

I was doing a bit of personal admin before writing this up and I noticed that last month was the three year anniversary of Michael and me (I? oh my grammar challenges) doing these posts together. I don't think either of us mentioned (or noticed?) that. Michael noted that it was science fiction that started it all for us, which was the genre of last month's choice, but I'm going to take a moment here to raise a glass to three years of community that all started with an innocent request by me for Michael to do a specific movie review.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Constant Gardener

In the last three years we've done a few fun twists to our posts (Free Fall anyone?) and I've realized belatedly that I should have asked for a twist again this month. I tried reading this book a few years back and never finished it. I liked the movie so much that I wanted it to be a part of our series so I thought I'd try again... I should have asked to do the review twist of me taking the movie. Ah, well. When faced with not quite knowing how to arrange a review I'm not that keen on, I steal AW's format and plunge ahead.

   From the author's website -
Tessa Quayle has been horribly murdered on the shores of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, the birthplace of mankind. Her putative African lover, a doctor with one of the aid agencies, has disappeared. Her husband, Justin, a career diplomat and amateur gardener at the British High Commission in Nairobi, sets out on a personal odyssey in pursuit of the killers and their motive.

His quest takes him to the Foreign Office in London, across Europe and Canada and back to Africa, to the very spot where Tessa died.

  This cover gets a big thumbs up from me. I love simple covers that have a clear connection with the book. Even better if you have to actually read the story to understand the cover.

First Sentence:
"The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning."
   I normally remove this section but I kept it this time simply to remind myself of whose head you're in for the first sentence. The POV is third person throughout and the first 100+ pages are in Woodrow's head. This was a bold choice by the author, imo, because Woodrow is one dark hallway away from being a rapist. Spending one hundred pages in his skeevy head is why I didn't finish the book the first time. I believe I shoved it under a rock and then went to take a shower.

What Works:
  The plot, the writing, and the characterization are all fantastic. It's incredible to me that I can like so much about this book but still not really like this book all that much. le Carre is a wonderfully gifted writer and it's a pleasure to experience his work. However, my appreciation was all in the craft. I was never that invested in the narrative. It even features a bit of the unreliable narrator slant and I still wasn't all that much into it. Bizarre how a thing like chemistry can matter when reading. Me and this book, we did not click.

What Doesn't:
   Obviously those first 100+ pages with the disgusting perv are high on my list of what doesn't work. But even when past that, I was still not satisfied and it took almost the entire length of the book for me to put my finger on it: it's the perspective. All the mystery and the excitement has already happened. The reader is just playing catch up. Tessa is an amazing individual who committed herself to an extraordinary path for justice and we don't get any of it. Additionally, her research into the Three Bees drug trials being performed in Africa would have resulted in numerous encounters with folks "in the fray" trying to understand what was going on. Why is this story told after her death via Justin's journey? What did that storytelling lens add? These are not rhetorical questions: I'm genuinely curious as to an answer from someone who likes the book as it stands. My thoughts are that we missed so much of the really interesting stuff that would have been going on while Tessa was doing her work. To me, the only thing its structure adds that might not have otherwise been part of the story is the question of Tessa's fidelity. And is that little tid bit worth it? Hardly. I say all this while quite liking Justin's character. His arc is definitely interesting but so overshadowed by what I would rather have been reading that I never was able to invest in him fully.

   The plot is truly the centerpiece of this work. My ambiguities aside, a look at big pharma as it exploits whoever it wants to make a profit is fascinating, frightening and necessary. This is a work of fiction but if you hesitate to believe that it touches precisely on truth then you might want to learn more about how drug companies work.

le Carre included this fantastic quote at the beginning of the novel:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning

So about the movie... I love it but let's leave that discussion for Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. Well, first off, I do think this series has bloomed into a wonderful little garden (using the book/film you selected as an analogy ). We've tilled it rather nicely, I think. So glad you included that post from three years ago, Rachel. Brings a good frame of reference on how it all began. Thanks for that, and this ;-).

    Good to know we both appreciate this author, but as I admitted in my review, I've had a time trying to read him. I recognize his way with the language, and what he concocts on the page, are superb. I wish that would translate into something I could get through. A hundred pages through the character of Woodrow? I couldn't do it.

    It's a great plot and shows a spotlight on something I don't doubt. Wonderful review, as always, Rachel. Again, many thanks.

  2. I haven't read The Constant Gardener, but I love/hate the film. le Carre is an author whose work I struggle with: I want to like it but just feel alienated and not engaged by it.

    On the pharmaceutical industry, have you read Ben Goldacre?

  3. Michael - Glad you enjoyed a trip down memory lane. I did, as well. Interesting that both you, me, and jmc want to like this author but can't get through his work with any satisfaction. Craft only gets you so far, got to be invested in the story to keep going, yes?

    jmc - "alienated and not engaged" is a perfect description of my feelings, too, when reading his work. Looks like a little club could be formed of those who admire his craft but don't actually like his work.

    Would you be willing to detail some of your movie hate? I'd definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    Thanks for the Goldacre tip; I actually tend away from clinical/human science when I'm out there looking for sciencey tid bits to read so I miss a lot of that type of community.

  4. Hate may be too strong a word. I really like the flashbacks and time shifts as narrative devices, and I thought Fiennes and Weisz did good jobs with their roles. But as a romance reader, I hated knowing that there would be no HEA/HFN since the film opens with Tessa's death. And being a pessimist (which is sort of incongruent with the rom-reading sometimes), I knew that Justin's search for the truth was not going to end well, even if he found it all out. So my "hate" is really more :( about content than anything.

  5. First of all, Cheers to you and Michael on three years of great duo posts! *clinks glass*

    Second of all, I agree with you about the cover art. That was my first thought when I was investigating the book after watching the film, which has become a favorite of mine. So much to love about the movie: the acting, the story (scarily plausible, if not probable), Africa...

    Thirdly, I'm so glad I got yours and Michael's takes on reading the novel. I think I'll skip it. During my Googling after seeing the movie, I came across this article by John le Carré regarding his inspiration that became Tessa.
    I was disappointed to see that Yvette Pierpaoli's book, Woman of a Thousand Children, is not translated into English. That could be interesting.

    Like I said in my comment to Michael's post, I was thrilled to see you guys tackle The Constant Gardner. Thank you!

  6. jmc - ah, I see. Yes, that rug gets jerked out quite early. Regarding the end; I've never fully understood why Justin chose to die the way he did. I don't quite buy the tessa is my home argument but I do buy that he was a dead man walking so that might have informed the choice. dunno, that's the part of the ending that doesn't totally jive for me.

    Christine - *clink* thanks! Great to hear from you. Hope all is well. This movie is one of my favorites, as well. Great to meet another fan. I think it is sadly under-seen. I think you're making the right choice on skipping the novel. The movie is one of the best (if not the best) adaptations I've ever seen so you get the majority of what is great about the book without all the unreadable baggage. And thanks so much for the link! btw, we take suggestions so if you have any other book/movie pairings you think worth it send it our way. :)

  7. AnonymousJuly 05, 2013

    Oh, I'm flattered! I think maybe I should start applying the format to my GR reviews now that I'm not so blogerific anymore.

    I haven't read any LeCarre, and will heed your rec not to start with this one. But I'll try to take a look at the movie which I haven't yet seen despite my love for Rachel Weisz. But commenting now mainly to say:

    " dark hallway away from being a rapist." Very good. Put that in a short story somewhere.


  8. Hi M. (aka AW) - If you're sticking with GR for reviews I'd second that. I like your format (stealing is the highest form of compliment right? or was that something else?:).

    If you do try a le Carre you'll have to tell me what you think. This is the only one I've finished and, as you can see, it was a chore. Definitely give the movie a view; it's really good and Weisz is excellent as usual.

    Can I bequeath that line to you? I doubt I'll have a use for it as I don't tend to write situations that would entail characters needing such a line. Not that you do necessarily but knowing I won't I hate to keep a line you like so much to myself. Have you been writing lately or is your program keeping you too busy? I haven't been writing lately (no excuse) but a few scenes are bubbling up in the ole brain so I think I'll be opening some dusty files soon.