The Devil's Garden by Edward Docx

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The Devil's Garden by Edward Docx

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: An Amazonian adventure that waivers between saying something interesting about the human condition and providing an exciting plot for the reader. It's well researched and a fairly short book, but ultimately it falls between two stools.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0330463508

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Set on a research station in an unnamed Amazonian country (although by the indigenous tribes mentioned, this is probably Peru), this first person narrative story is told by Dr Forle, who has come to the area to study ants - specifically the strange phenomenon of a type of ant that appear to destroy their own environment. It's sort of ants on the deck in the jungle, if you like. However the scientific study is interrupted by the arrival of an army colonel and a judge, who at least on the surface of things is there to organize the registration of the local tribes. However when the doctor witnesses a clear act of violence by the soldiers accompanying the colonel, he becomes more engaged with the local goings on.

Expectation can be a tricky thing. I was very much looking forward to this book on the basis of Edward Docx's two excellent previous books: The Calligrapher and Self Help. Both of these were characterised by stylish writing, strong research, and a strong dose of genuine humour. I have to admit therefore that I was somewhat disappointed with The Devil's Garden. Yes, the strong research is clearly present and the writing is perfectly fine, but there's little of the style and panache that the two previous books showed. You might even call it a bit of an ANTiclimax.

Part of the problem is, I think, the uneven pacing. For the first half it plods along at a sedate manner rather like the Amazon tributary on which the research station is set. Yes, Docx provides a good description of the jungle experience, but it doesn't have the style that I was expecting. Then when things inevitably kick off, it all gets a bit frenetic.

Another part of the problem for me is that there's not much surprising or new here. He makes some fairly expected points about the developed world's treatment of the developing nations in terms of exploitation (for drugs, oil, logging etc), ethnic cleansing and the manipulation of the democratic process in these areas, and there's some solid science vs religion argument (one of the characters is a missionary). There are the odd ethical and moral arguments, here mostly played out by the research assistant, Kim, and the judge, but they are all rather superficial. Partly this is a result of the first person narrative approach and partly down to who the narrator is. As a scientist, his view is consistent with his character and we get lots of scientific names of plants and animals, but he understands people less well and so we get less insight into the human world and relationships as a result.

Interspersed in the action are extracts from the doctor's research notes on the ants. It's here that you get the benefit of Docx's characteristic research diligence. Often when this technique is used in novels there's a sense of them slowing the story, but here I found myself more interested in the ants than in the plight of the good doctor. There are some killer facts, most notably the one that I'm now boring everyone with, that apparently 'the combined dry weight of all the ants on the Earth is about the same as that of Homo sapiens'. I can see why the ant question rang bells for the analogy with humans for a writer, and one of the joys of Docx is that his books do tend to be markedly different, but it's all a bit too obvious and it gets a bit lost in the drive to make the plot exciting. In another extract from the ant notes, Dr Forle writes 'through the very act of engineering the world around them for what appears to be their own benefit, the ants eventually bring about their own demise'. It's not a subtle metaphor.

Also because of the first person narrative, the feeling is very much of an innocent abroad. The doctor is sleeping with one of the local native girls at the station which raises interesting questions that are just not explored. I have to say that I wasn't convinced by the violent ending either although there is a palpable sense of the oppressing jungle and the equally confusion-ridden human relationships. You are never sure who the enemy is or where they will come from.

It's certainly not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a particularly long book - in fact perhaps if some of the more complex issues were explored from different perspectives, it might have been rather more engaging. If you haven't already, you should definitely read Edward Docx - he's a writer of huge promise, but sadly this isn't his best work in my opinion. You won't look at an ant in the same way again though.

The Bookbag would like to thank the good people at Picador for inviting us to review 'The Devil's Garden'.

As I've mentioned, for further reading, then the Booker-nominated Self Help by Edward Docx is highly recommended while for more books with creepy-crawly content, why not try Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman?

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