on August 31, 2005
Having been a long time reader of John Le Carre's often bitter ironic take on the life of Britain's intelligence community, I looked forward to reading The Constant Gardener, as it promised to be a departure from his usual cloak and dagger novels. It exceeded my expectations in ways I did not anticipate.
The Constant Gardener at its heart is a love story. Justin Quayle, a minor British diplomat, is stationed in Africa, rumored to be his last posting. He has met and married a younger woman, Tessa, the subject of much gleeful and often malicious speculation amongst the diplomatic community.
The story opens with the horrific news that bodies have been found by Lake Turkana and are believed to be those of Tessa and her driver. The other occupant, a much beloved man by the name of Dr. Arnold Bluhm, an African civil rights activist, long rumored to be Tessa''s lover, is missing.
As the tale unfolds, myriad people who knew Tessa, some loving her, others despising her youth and high ideals, struggle to cope with her loss, and their own hidden fears. Many hold Justin Quayle in semi-contempt as an overfond and doting fool, more involved in his plants, than keeping a rein on his young headstrong wife.
The writing is taut and exquisite, as carefully, Le Carre exposes the reality behind the masks worn by so many of the people around Tessa. Tessa herself, using both recollection and the reflections of Justin Quayle, begins to emerge as something much greater than anyone ever gave her credit for being.
Justin, trying to deal with the huge emotional wound his wife's death opened, begins on his own, to investigate just what Tessa had gotten herself involved in. He finds finally, something more precious, more valuable than he could ever imagine. In the process, he faces his own shortcomings when it comes to dealing with the bigger issues of our time. And in this discovery, he finds himself coming up short in comparison to Tessa, who never ran or shirked her role in battling the truly nasty, vile things facing Africa.
This book is filled with a passionate concern for the welfare of the African peoples. Le Carre spares neither the UN, his own government nor the people on the ground, supposedly trying to help bring Africa into the 21st century. The role of the giant pharmaceutical company's, and what they have done is mercilessly depicted.
The Constant Gardener is one of the best Le Carre has ever written, and well worth reading. It is both thoughtful and deeply troubling, given the times we live in. But the insights into people, the depiction of the UN aid effort, and why it often fails to reach the people needing it most, make this a timely and absorbing read
Too often a commercially successful novelist -- especially one identified with a particular genre -- falls into the easy routine of writing in essence the same book over and over again or, at best, cutting corners to quickly finsh off yet another manuscript to be shipped off to the printer in time for the annual publication date. But that is not John le Carre. His work almost always shows a progression in his exploration of theme and technique. Certainly there are echoes of his most recent works from "Our Game" through "Single & Single", but in "The Constant Gardener" we are drawn even more deeply into an identification with the central character during his lonely odyssey. I cannot imagine how anyone could read this novel without being strongly emotionally affected.
on December 14, 2000
In Kenya, someone rapes and murders activist Tessa Quayle, wife of a mid level British diplomat while the victim's traveling companion Dr. Arnold Bluhm has vanished. Tessa and Arnold protested the inhumane practices of the global pharmaceutical companies. They bitterly complained about the use of locals to test new products and the selling of expired medicines that would be flushed down the toilet in the West.
The police blame the missing Arnold for the crime as evidence surfaced that they were lovers. Tessa's sedate, older spouse Justin wonders if something more sinister led to his wife's death. Even as his superiors want to place a lid on a major scandal, Justin begins to make inquiries starting with the time Tessa spent as a patient in an African hospital where he believes she discovered something top secret. He also believes that someone felt she deserved to die to keep all hidden skeletons buried so the public doesn't know.
Many recent novels have anointed the giant drug companies as the replacement to the Soviet Union as the enemy of the common person. With THE CONSTANT GARDENER, espionage thriller guru John Le Carre comes out of the cold and joins the ranks of writers starring a serene David battling against the pharmaceutical-government complex who will kill for profit. The story line is fast-paced and no one does locality scenes better than Mr. Le Carre does as he shows with his vivid tour of Kenya's Lake Turkana region. Fans of his great tales will welcome the author's switch, as this is one of his better entries in recent years and is one of the sub-genre's superior crafted tales.
on November 9, 2004
Corporate greed and corporate murder are not exactly new, nor are they particularly fun for many people to read. It's a profound shame that the sting is gone from them for some of us. A book which allows you to FEEL that sting would be a valuable work of art.
But wait, this is not particularly about the corporate scene. That's background, but there's a stronger thread which is about love and about a search for truth. Most of this on the parched plains of Africa. With frequent side-trips to the claustrophobic dance of diplomacy.
Le Carre seems to have built his reputation on spy novels. Spycraft is present here. You see the watchers, the searchers, and the strategists. You see the weaknesses of the (fictional) bureaucratic hierarchy (in the view of the characters). You see the idealism-vs.-life tensions played out. But that's only for starters.
In some reviews there seems to be scant appreciation of the author's character development, which is outstanding here. Similarly outstanding is the skill for nuance in dialogue. In this book you move from Sandy's world to Justin's world, with bumps along the way, and the shift is profound.
You also get a tour of British idiom as a device in character building, and I found that to be delightful.
You also get a picture of corporate greed practiced by way of third-world imperialism. As consciousness-raising, this is more profound than Edward Abbey and as entertaining as Palaniuk, more entertaining than Ballard.
If you've ever felt the pang of idealism, and especially if you've felt it and lost it, then this book is a compelling, worthwhile experience.
on January 7, 2001
Let me preface my remarks by admiting that I am an avid reader - and re-reader - of John LeCarre's works. Since "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" I have I have awaited each of his subsequent books like...well, like I now await the next episode of Harry Potter!
Still, unlike the professional reviewers that I have read, I do not find ""The Constant Gardner" among LeCarre's better works. A good read? Certainly. But the novel does not ring true. It does not carry the gravitas of his cold war novels, the mystery of his east european nights. And it lacks the emotional and narrative complexity of his earlier works.
Perhaps most disconcerting his how little time LeCarre spends on the supposed central themes of his book. Africa: LeCarre skims over Kenyan life and politics like he never descended from the plane he is seen in on the book jacket. Africa IS as complex and as mysterious - and even as disappointing as the European backdrop of Tinker, Taylor and Smiley's People. But LeCarre does not understand it, and unlike Eastern Europe, he has not invested in it.
Gardening? The central character is rarely shown gardening, and the floral references, while evident, don't drive your understanding, or define, parallel or predict the development of the character. An odd weight to an avocation that could easily have been replaced by chess, wine or birds, without having the slightest effect on the reader's experience. And what a shame to have missed the opportunity to immerse the reader in the sights and scents of Kenya's floral bounty.
Last of all is the disappointinly shallow treatment LeCarre gives to the role of pharmaceutical companies in Africa and other developing nations. I applaud him for raising the issue to what will likely be hundreds of thousands of readers who might never have known of the abuses of major corporations upon the world's poor. I was just surprised at how little he did with it.
Having said all that, I should also say that I finished the book in about 36 hours. Lovers of LeCarre will feel right at home with the main character; the somewhat lost, reflective individual driven to right great wrongs in the name of an even greater passion. In this regard, "The Constant Gardener" follows the lead of most of LeCarre's post-cold war novels: Our Game, Russia House and Single and Single among them.
on December 17, 2000
I think this is the first John Le Carre book I've ever finished. I usually find the characters too patronizing, the plots too crammed with incredibly unexciting spy arcana, and the characterizations of women too weirdly 1950s for me to ever soldier on (a very Le Carre image there) to the last page. But hallelujah, the cold war's over. And after several awkward forays into a sort of half-genre Le Carre has found a new pace, and it is terrific.
"The Constant Gardener" is Justin Quayle, a midrange bureaucrat in the British foreign service whose young wife Tessa is heavily involved in relief work from their base in Nairobi. Tessa is horribly murdered and the respected African doctor she was traveling with disappears. Bits of information fall into Justin's lap about a so-called wonder drug for TB, and Tessa's research into its ultimate side effect - death. The practices of pharmaceutical companies in the Third World, the business of humanitarian aid, and roles governments play in regards to both are probed by interesting characters in a smart and smartly-paced series of events that lead to an ending that will make your skin crawl.
I never found much suspense in Le Carre's other books because it was so difficult to care about his characters. This book will keep you riveted from start to finish. "The Constant Gardener" is what I always thought a John Le Carre book was supposed to be.
The English Gardener is the most unusual and darkest of all the Le Carre novels, exceeding even The Little Drummer Girl in these regards. This book has more in common with Heart of Darkness than with the George Smiley spy novels, yet there are some stylistic carry-overs from the cold war books. Despite all of The English Gardener's emotionally disturbing features, there is beauty here . . . the beauty of idealism, love, and honor. Even in the densest, most forbidding jungle, wild flowers will relieve the darkness and provide hope. Every reader will be challenged to her or his core by the thought, "You think you're solving the world's problems but actually you're the problem."
Before describing the novel in more detail, let me caution all of those who are easily upset by the human ability to be inhumane, that this book teems with incidents of inhumanity in many of its worst forms. The emotional impact of this novel is intense and lasting. You may well have dreams (or nightmares) about it.
On the surface, the book is a detective story. Fragmentary reports and rumors seep in of a horrific and mysterious murder in Kenya of Tessa Quayle, the young newly-wed wife of a middle-aged British diplomat, Justin Quayle. Everyone knows more than they are telling, and seems to want to hush matters up except for two young English investigators. The press soon is having a field day making speculations about what Tessa was doing traveling under her maiden name with a black Doctor and sharing a room with him. Yet appearances are deceiving, and Justin soon begins to unravel an international plot of insidious proportions.
Tessa was a lawyer, and she had stumbled across "a great crime." Because of her husband's diplomatic role, they had agreed that she should pursue her investigation without involving him. "She follows her conscience. I get on with my job." As a result, he remained in his domesticated garden of diplomatic activity while she was stalking big game in the jungle of corporate greed. With her death, he leaves the garden of Eden having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and follows her pathway.
Many people will find that the plot moves too slowly for them. After 30 percent of the book, you will already have figured out the mystery of "a great crime" (even if someone doesn't tell you the plot in advance as some reviewers may do). Clearly, the book could have been shortened by 100 to 150 pages without losing any important material from my perspective.
While you are dragging through document after document, keep in mind the benefits of Le Carre's approach. One reason for this extra length is because Le Carre provides elaborate raw detail, so that the reader feels like he or she is Justin and pursuing the wrong-doing directly. Another benefit of this bulk is that readers who may not be familiar with the details of pharmaceutical research, political lobbying, and business promotional practices will avoid being lost by the story. If you are familiar with this type of information, the story will definitely drag. Another reason for the involved material is that Le Carre is painting with a very broad brush and wants to be sure that you know that he is indicting all of society . . . not just the bad guys. The final reason seems to be a desire to present the fumbling efforts of an amateur investigator in a realistic way. All in all, these sections work, but they are extraordinarily laborious for the reader.
I thought that the main weakness of the book related to the actions of the business people involved. I found their greed, short-sightedness, and viciousness to be so extreme as to not be credible. Le Carre would have done well to have backed off a bit and colored them with some white and gray as well. As depicted, these executives seem to be pure disciples of Satan himself. That darkness is relieved by having many characters with white and gray qualities as well, but modern readers are accustomed to a bit more reality in their novels than Milton provided in his epic poem of Paradise Lost or Le Carre did with his business leaders here.
An important minor weakness is found in the science involved. Those who like great scientific realism will find the descriptions here a little off the mark, particularly in terms of how toxicity is tested and revealed. If you have a scientific background, this will also ruin the story a bit for you. If you can suspend your justified disbelief a little, you will benefit more from the story.
The book's greatest strength is challenging the natural human tendency to focus on what's right around us, the garden we tend. If we do so, we are very vulnerable to having those who watch the guardians be corrupted. In the process of that debasement, we are all lost. "We all betrayed her." is the sentence in this book that will haunt you afterwards. In this way, John Donne's poetry of "No Man Is An Island" is recalled.
A particularly rewarding stylistic device is starting the narration from the perspective of an outside observer who does not know the facts before switching to Justin's perspective. As a result, you will appreciate better the extent to which appearances can be deceiving . . . like the beautiful garden that a murderer may have filled with the bodies of victims.
After you have finished the story and have let its power wash over you, I suggest that you pick an area where you can check on the guardians of truth and honesty, and begin to watch those guardians. Consider Tessa's and Justin's examples in determining how to exercise your oversight effectively.
Look for wrongs to right outside your normal range of attention, and be persistent in righting them!
on November 8, 2001
The Stanley Hotel
That John Le Carre is a master story-teller goes without saying. His reputation sits solidly upon a strong foundation of popular books based on the John Smiley Character. I am sorry to say that,owing to a preference for non-fiction over fiction, I had not read a single one of his books until now.
The Constant Gardener was recommended by a friend who, upon learning of my intention to quit a job flying a new 747 so I could return to Africa to fly an antique, clapped-out Hercules, air-dropping food and supplies to the dispossessed of Southern Sudan, called to say I should read this book since it was set in the area around Lokichoggio, Kenya, the home of the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan.
The central theme of the story is one of contemporary controversy: the role of "Big Pharma" companies in the Third World.
In a world of scarce resources, where emerging nations must choose between healthcare and basic education, between hospitals for the dying and schools for those just beginning life, do the creators of modern medicines have a human duty to provide product to developing nations irrespective of cost?
In the case of poor countries that cannot pay,is it an ethical quid pro quo to use these destitute populations as unwitting subjects in surreptitious clinical trials?
Dypraxa is a miracle cure in waiting. A short-course treatment for the "White Plague," tuberculosis. TB is rampant in AIDS-ravaged Africa. It is on the verge of re-exploding onto the scene in the developed nations of the First World.
KVH pharmaceuticals has developed an effecacious new treatment, but it is not yet ready for release in Europe and America. Toxicity levels are still being explored and one still remaining side effect is death in some patients.
Tessa Quayle (nee Abbott) is a young lawyer crusading in the cause of Human Rights,particularly Women's Rights, married to an older,low-level diplomat attached to the British High Commission in Nairobi,Kenya. She has painstakingly documented the shortcomings and failures of Dypraxa and, having failed to persuade both the manufacturer and the Marketer of the drug to pull it from the market, has embarked on a mission to bring her findings to the attention of Her Majesty's government and the Public Health Community.
Her efforts cost both her and her Black Belgian colleague and putative lover, Dr. Arnold Bluhm, their lives in a most grisly fashion. Tessa's body is discovered on the shore of Lake Turkana some miles east of Lokichoggio where she and the doctor had supposedly gone to attend a conference.
Responsibility for protecting the High Commission's interests falls to Sandy Woodrow,ambitious second to High Commissioner Porter Coleridge and unrequited,would-be paramour of the late Tessa. Sandy shoulders the burden of protecting the High Commission by offering sanctuary from the prying media hounds to Tessa'a husband,the ineffectual cuckhold Justin Quayle. Locked away in a basement room, Justin is shielded from prying eyes and a deepening scandal is averted.
Two up-and-coming detectives are sent out from Scotland Yard to conduct the investigation. The doggedly pursue each thread, carefully weaving their case in the face of Foreign Office duplicity, personal hidden agendas and corporate stonewalling.
The basic premise and structure of the story would make this book an adequate, if formulaic, murder mystery in any event. What transforms this story into a ripping-good yarn is Le Carre's gift for using the reader's complacency and preconceptions as a pivot-point aroound which he moves his story and his characters throough 180 degrees.
The initially obvious is wrong. Those whom we at first take to be honorable prove to be selfish and banal. Those whom we first disdain prove to have character of woven steel.
My experience with fictional stories of exotic places with which I am familiar is that they inevitably disappoint. The author always seems to get the details wrong.
In this instance Le Carre not only gets the details right, but he also captures the subtle undercurrents flowing through the lives of the members of the ex-patriot and relief communities based in Kenya.
Anyone who has spent time in East Africa will find his characters familiar,common even, yet not stereotypical. Bright,ambitious Asians of high academic achievement,like Ghita, are ten for a penny around Nairobi. It is to Africa's great cost that their potential contributions are suppressed by the remnants of Raj Colonial attitudes regarding class and "one's place" and thwarted both by corrupt government and native African resentment.
Le Carre succeeds in capturing the strange household dynamic between B'wana,Mama and the household staff. Not for nothing is the Swahili word for white man, "M'zungu", also the word for crazy. Loyalty of the type displayed by the servant Mustapha speaks volumes about the character of those whom he serves.
There is no place on earth more compelling than Africa and no place has broken more hearts or shattered more dreams. The ex-patriot community runs the full human spectrum from charlatan to saint. To some relief work work is just a job, a way to get money. To many it is a calling to serve a higher and more noble purpose. To those like the character Lohbeer,it represents a final chance for redemption from past sins.
For me, Africa is a place of retreat. A place to return to for a reflective change of pace and catech up on neglected reading. I started reading this book on a nine hour layover in Spain. It was such a page-turner that I spent the entirety of the all-night-flight from Madrid to Johannesburg sitting in a solitary pool of light,unwilling to sleep until I had reached the conclusion.
For those seeking cosmic justice, the ending will leave them unfulfilled. But the story ends in the only possible way and for that reason, this book is a great read.
Lovers of quality fiction will find much to admire in this new, thoughtful thriller by John LeCarre. Set initially in Kenya, it quickly turns from a gruesome murder mystery into a quirky yet fascinating personal odyssey to discover the truth about both the protagonist's murdered wife and about the state of the post-modern capitalist world in general. Indeed, like most of the best-selling works that came before this one from the unchallenged master of the intelligent spy thriller John LeCarre, this is a penetrating treatise on the hidden and conflicted corners of the human heart. For LeCarre, who made his reputation chronicling the particulars of the internecine aspects of the cold war and the spy trade, the ending of the post-war period and the coming of the new world order provides a whole new set of circumstances with which to peer meaningfully at the human beings inhabiting the so-called civilized areas of the planet as well as the darker side of humanity itself. In so doing, he mines new tunnels of cunning, deceit, and betrayal, all the while weaving a quite memorable story in the spaces parsed brilliantly into the plotline.
British career diplomat Justin `s beautiful and much younger wife Tessa is brutally and mysteriously murdered, and her rumored black lover, a doctor with an aid organization, is nowhere to be found. Unsatisfied with the quick and dirty investigation conducted by both local authorities and an unsettling discomfort exuding from his fellow diplomats, Justin decides to take things into his own hands, beginning a fateful journey of discovery and at the same time setting many other wheels into motion with this action. Of course, all of this is merely the opening salvo of in the tirade of events, characters, and places that whirl into centrifugal force in this wonderful examination of the underside of human nature and the complexities of the human heart. LeCarre is a master at detailing the deceptions, betrayals, and complexities people bring to bear in their conduct, and the layers of complexity peel like skins from an onion as he delves deeper and deeper into what is going on.
With his usual style, suspenseful prose, and intellectual gamesmanship, LeCarre stirs the reader's interest and dismay as we see quite dreadful games set into motion with deadly earnest by everyone involved; his fellow Brits, the local profiteers, and even darker forces that come to bear as the plot spins into overdrive later in the book. This is a stunning, suspenseful, and somewhat rueful tale of what unfolds when the protagonist begins to discover the motives lurking behind what seemed to be a simple homicide, and he gets sucked deeper into the geopolitical politics swirling around the affair like a evil whirlwind, predictable, evil, and quite possibly totally out of control. As one can expect from such a well-described albeit shadowy and complex geopolitical world of espionage and power that LeCarre writes so brilliantly and unforgettably about, there are no simple answers or easy foregone conclusions. Instead, the reader is spun along the twist and turns of both the plot and the wonderful characterizations; fascinated by the power of observation and description LeCarre brings to bear. This is a wonderful read and a marvelous book, and has the ring of more real-life veracity and worldly wisdom than one can easily find on the non-fiction side of the bookstore aisle. Enjoy!
on March 19, 2004
There is nothing as sure as a good John Le Carré book. Some are great, others not, but they are always at least enjoyable. The man writes with so much assurance and charm that people who like deep and well-written thrillers have to love and thank him for such a great material.
`The Constant Gardener' is a really interesting book. It has an engaging beginning that will be solved throughout the novel. Tessa Quayle is brutally murdered in a distant region in Kenya-- where the couple lives. Before her death, she and her husband --the gardener in the title-- had felt apart. Ever since they moved to Africa, she involved with humanitarian works, while he focused in his office duties. The crime will shad a new light in her life, and Quayle will learn that Tessa is far from being what he thought she was.
In a nutshell the novel is Quayle's quest trying to find out who killed his wife and why. The deeper he goes, the more dirty he finds. He learns that her death may be linked to the pharmaceutical industry and its market in the third world.
Le Carré has his special gift for drawing believable plots with by characters that are very human. Quayle and Tessa are people that may be anyone's friends. The dynamics of their falling apart is very true to earth. But not only them are believable, but also the supporting characters.
The narrative is in a worthwhile slow motion --in other words, it requires patience from the readers. But people who enjoy Le Carré's style will find it fascinating the way he unfolds the story until it ending. At the same time, the writer is able to touch upon serious issues like the capitalism and the pharmaceutical industry that causes at lot of harm to many countries --mostly in the third world.
All in all, `The Constant Gardener' is quite a decent read, but it requires a lot of concentration from the reader. It is different from the fast pace explosive thrillers that are out there, but it is still very good on its own merits.