Friday, May 23, 2008

The Constant Gardener: Reviewed.

It was said that, from the onset of the first pages of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, experienced readers would know that they are in the familiar and always capable hands of le Carré. But being a new kid in the vast knowledgeable creative mind of Mr. le Carré’s, I tend to sort of making this one particular novel as my introduction to his many works. The reason why I chose The Constant Gardener which got mixed reviews was that I was very much impressed when watching the movie adaptation back in 2005, my last ‘date’ with Nina before she went on and married to another fellow M.D. and moved out of this country. But that, of course, is a wholly irrelevant story.

The Constant Gardener begins with a crisis when news of the violent murder of Tessa Quayle, a young and beautiful white relief worker in East Africa, reaches the assorted bureaucrats and spies who populate the British High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, where Tessa’s husband, Justin, works as midlevel diplomat.

At first, her death appears to be one of those embarrassing incidents that governments involved, especially the British, hate to have happen in foreign countries. It’s scandalous. Just like the death of former British Airways’ cabin crew Lucie Blackman. Even though of course, Ms. Blackman was actually a real-life person.

Tessa was known for her radical views and involuntariness to muffle her idealism and outspokenness. At the time of her tragic death, while she was up-country near the boundary with Sudan, she had been traveling with a handsome black Congolese-descendant Belgian-citizen doctor who was widely assumed to be her secret lover, and who has inexplicably vanished from the jeep in which her naked, beaten and severed body was found.

Justin Quayle, her husband, an efficient, very polite and by-the-book Englishman then returns to Britain, looking to all the world like a beaten-down loser, a gray man who has been effectively widowed twice, the first time when he lost his wife's love and was too polite, and repressed, to understand why or even to admit it.

But this is le Carré, who oftentimes compared with Tom Clancy, and of course his readers should expect more of things to come. And their expectations, of course, contented. Things were really not as they seemed to be.

For Justin Quayle, of whom the title character – the constant gardener – derived from, it seems everything ends when he buried his wife on the graveyard near Kibera slum.

It turns out; this is actually the part where le Carré shifts this novel’s perspective, from Sandy Woodrow’s, the head of the chancery, to Justin, the first secretary cum gardening aficionado, just after about a hundred or so pages. For impatient readers, they’d probably stop reading this novel already. Their loss.

As controversies begin to loom about what Tessa was actually doing exactly in Nairobi, and how it fits in with a powerful pharmaceutical company heavily connected to a number of overtly and covertly corrupt governments in Africa and the West, Justin went AWOL from Her Majesty’s Foreign Service, defied his old-fashioned Etonian background and eventually goes on a crusade in such chivalrous quest for the truth, also to avenge his wife’s death.

This novel is dense and finely plotted and nourished with examinations of how things like loyalty, honesty, self-preservation, and memory, can become murkier the deeper you get entangled in something bigger than yourself. This was clearly depicted in the character of Sandy Woodrow, whom loyalties conflicted as the plot entwined yet unraveled at the same time. It also holds its own because of John le Carré’s deeply felt assurance and passion about the sins perpetrated by drug companies on developing countries.

However, the biggest significant problem about The Constant Gardener is that le Carré gives his game away too early. Somewhere in the first third part, the mystery surrounding Tessa’s death is solved. So does other related mysteries: the death and disappearance of the poor African woman and her brother whom Tessa befriended, the three white doctors in the maternity clinic, even the identity of the bad guys and their collaborators. Those, of course, immediately rob the rest of the book from the sort of suspense that can make this work, otherwise, so masterful. It is never a moment in this novel where its reader learns something that wholly changes the course of the book and quite literally takes their breaths away.

And as the last (random) thought, being a self-proclaimed kitschy sentimental person, I found the ending was as much heartbreaking as it was almost unbearably moving. The kind of ending that will leave you astounded. Guaranteed.

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