I spent most of last week working my way through two very short books and realising it's a long time since I've found myself reading anything so challenging. The other book is Jen Hadfield's latest collection of poems - 'Byssus'. I'm in the habit of reading books I find enjoyable, interesting, informative, sometimes provocative - but rarely ones that make me work this hard, but then Peirene books excel at making me work hard. The only downside is that most of my reading time is on the bus and during breaks at work where it's all to easy to get distracted. Ideally I would have read 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' somewhere quieter - it deserves the readers full attention.
Reading it alongside 'Byssus' was fortuitous though, both encourage a search for images and meaning, and both have their own ways of keeping the reader in line. In 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' it's the fractured narrative - it had me going back time and again to try and remember who was speaking and who they were. This is a whole village of voices and sometimes it feels like they're all speaking at once, each giving a little bit of insight into an interior life and all coming together in layers which are hard to untangle. Part of it is the business of living with others, along with all the attendant births, marriages, deaths and small scandals that make up community life but there's also the question of what to put your faith in.
Mr Darwin and his theories of evolution are a shadow over the village, we never meet him directly but he's there in the background as the villagers define what they put their faith in - god or science, though in the end you have to question if it really matters so very much. Regardless of belief when advent (or any celebration) comes:
"There is hardly a moment to draw breath and one has to sweep snow off the steps, heat the house, do the laundry, starch, iron, darn, sweep, wax, polish dust, air, boil, crush, whisk, knead, roll, roast, ice, sew, go out for sugar, salt, flour, currants, cinnamon, almonds, soda, buttons, ribbons, candles; run to the shop and back, to the neighbour's, the church, the chicken coop, the shed, and back into the kitchen before a burning smell comes from the oven."Put your faith into whatever you feel you must, one way or another life will carry on much the same.