‘The Devil’s Garden’ by Edward Docx

Devils-garden

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 323 pages; 2012.

Edward Docx’s The Devil’s Garden is a dark and disturbing story set in the jungle of South America. It’s billed as a literary thriller, a kind of modern day Heart of Darkness, but it’s quite a slow burner and it’s not until page 218 — two-thirds of the way in — that the action really takes off.

A scientist obsessed by ants

Dr Forle is an entomologist studying the complex social hierarchy of ants. He is based at The Station, a remote scientific outpost in the jungle of an unspecified South American country, with his assistants, Lothar and Kim, four locals and a visiting missionary. Here he is midway through writing a book “that combines the best of my articles for the science journals with my research and findings”.

He has a hidden past, which we never really come to find out about, only that his long-term partner has died and he has come to the jungle to “get away from myself. The man I was before — I didn’t like him”. He is a quiet, reserved man, self-contained and deeply committed to his work. (I hesitate to say the word boring, but it does spring to mind — although Dr Forle isn’t adverse to sleeping with one of his crew and he does dabble with a bit of cocaine usage.)

But the equilibrium of his new life is soon disturbed when two visitors arrive unannounced — a Colonel and a Judge, closely followed by a boatload of soldiers. The guests are supposedly registering local people to vote, but their presence soon ushers in an unwelcome air of surveillance, corruption — and violence.

A sense of menace and unease

The book isn’t a classic page turner in the sense one would expect, but there’s enough menace and unease in the storyline to make it a compelling read. That Dr Forle continues to pretend that everything is all right, that his work must come first, was enough to make me realise that something very bad was probably going to happen at some point… But it does take an awful lot of ground work by Docx to get to the stage where the scales are lifted from our narrator’s eyes — and then all hell breaks loose.

This fear is only heightened by the knowledge that The Station is so deep within the rainforest that “there is only one way in and there is only one way out: the river”.

And the rainforest, which is dark and mysterious, filled with dangerous creatures and beautiful birdsong, heaving with humidity and crawling with insects, is a character all of its own — brooding, temperamental and frightening.

Lothar’s light swept the black. Fronds and leaves and twine lit up, white as fish bones in the  darkness all around. Sometimes there was space, a deeper blackness; other times the forest closed in and we stood a moment — isolated, hemmed, claustrophobic. When we stopped to breathe, a dozen creatures gorged on our blood.

This deeply claustrophobic world, where no-one is to be trusted and where even the jungle is an enemy, is only mirrored by Dr Forle’s study of the ants, which effectively become a metaphor for the human race. To hammer home this point, extracts from the book that Dr Forle is writing are scattered throughout the narrative, and in the following example, it’s difficult to tell if he is writing about humans or ants:

On the one hand, we have the selfish-gene merchants, who claim that traits can evolve only for the good of the individual and not for the good of the group. This has many implications for biology, but also for our society: most of all, it turns the individual into the king of the biological hierarchy. Most of science covertly or explicitly subscribes to this view.

The insect theme is strongly maintained throughout the novel, where the river is described as being “as black as a scarab’s thorax” and where “the insect trill was like some great tinnitus”.

Dark, brooding, pessimistic

And while the prose cannot be faulted, there’s something almost too dark, too brooding and too pessimistic about The Devil’s Garden to make it an enjoyable read. (Peter Temple’s Truth comes to mind.)

Its central redeeming feature, however, has to be its punchy, adrenalin-fuelled final pages (one particular scene left me reeling; it made me want to gag) and the delicious last sentence which suggests that some good may yet come out of such a poisoned Eden…

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13 thoughts on “‘The Devil’s Garden’ by Edward Docx

  1. I ve just read a french book sent in south america and got another american novel on tbr pile set there ,this looks interesting Kim I like heart of darkness and always think the jungle and being isolated there leads to great fiction don’t you ? ,all the best stu

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  2. My honours thesis was about rainforests and the way they are perceived in literature, so I couldn’t help but think how perfect this book would have been for my study. I’d actually love to read a novel that celebrates the rainforest as a beautiful refuge instead of turning it into a scary place rife with danger… I’ve yet to come across a novel that does that.

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  3. Great review – not sure if it is quite my cup of tea, though, fond as I am of insects (particularly tropical water bugs). I’ll keep this one bookmarked – thrillers are usually too predictable and boring for my taste but maybe this is a bit more original.

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  4. I started this when I was sent the hardback proof and I couldnt get through the first 50 or so pages because it seemed a little plodding and as you say there was a darkness about it that was almost too much… and I like a dark read.

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  5. To be honest, I’m not sure thriller is the right word for this novel, but it’s what made me buy it when I saw it in Waterstones last week. It’s full of suspense, but it certainly doesn’t follow the usual “rules” of the genre.

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  6. I could understand why you’d abandon this novel, Simon, as I came very close to doing the same. But it’s worth persevering because when it does pick up the pace it’s pretty explosive — and shocking.

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  7. Speaking of Rainforest fiction, there is a South American classic written in the 1920s called ‘The Golden Serpent’ by Ciro Alegria. It takes place near the Marathon River in Peru, and the river is called the Golden Serpent. I found it an excellent read. I’m sure this book of connected stories is not at all like ‘The Devil’s Garden’, but it is Rainforest fiction.

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  8. Just for fun, I checked US availability of Alegria’s “The Golden Serpent’, and, you’re right, it is out of print. Amazon/US did have used paperbacks ranging from $2.50 up. Their top price was $135 for a used hardcover. ebay had the used paperback for $4.95. I never saw such unavailability of a classic. I checked it out of our big library system about 20 years ago – great book. I think the prices indicate the esteem for this book. Good re-printing opportunity.

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  9. To be honest, yes, it was hard to stick with it, but I stubbornly kept going on the basis I’d spent £7 on the thing and I didn’t want to waste my money. Also, I kept thinking, this is supposed to be a thriller, so the thrilling aspect has to kick in somewhere… I just hadn’t realised I’d have to wade through two-thirds of the book before the action went up a gear.

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