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...