Friday, September 02, 2005

Book Review: The Constant Gardener

I’ve previously reviewed a book by John le Carré, called Absolute Friends. Because I liked it so much, I’ve decided to read more of his work, the result being that I have now read The Constant Gardener. (Funnily enough, on the cover of the book it says “now a major motion picture, with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz”, but neither my wife nor I had ever heard of it; I assumed it was a movie that just didn’t do well. And then I saw an interview on The Daily Show with Rachel Weisz, because the movie is just about to come out. So if you’re reading this after August 31st, I didn’t do this review just because of the movie.)

I’m beginning to really love le Carré’s work. Of course, the reason I first started reading him was that I was looking for a new author of spy novels, which I love, and the two books I’ve read don’t really classify as your typical spy novel. (The Constant Gardener isn’t a spy novel at all.) But he’s a great writer, and I love the way he mixes politics into his writing.

Unfortunately, I can’t go into much detail on the plot of this story, because I love the way he developed it; almost anything I mention will ruin something in the book for you. So I’ll just give you this: The story is about a woman and a man who have been killed, Tessa Quayle and Arnold Bluhm. The woman’s husband Justin is trying to get to the truth behind who killed her, and why.

I was hooked on this book almost immediately. For the first little while, the book doesn’t concentrate on the main character, Justin; it instead concentrates on a relatively minor character, and one who is not really that likable. I thought that was great writing, and it was a very interesting way to develop Justin’s character: by looking at Justin through the eyes of another character, and one whose judgement we don’t necessarily trust, we get an interesting perspective on things, while at the same time adding to the mystery of who Justin really is. Any opinions we form about him we know we will have to reconsider, as the novel progresses, simply because we can’t trust the opinions of this minor character. (Don’t let me confuse you when I talk about parts of the book being “from the perspective of” a particular character. The novel is all told from the third person, not the first person. It’s just a matter of where the focus is given.) This is a device le Carré uses a number of times in the book; he will often put the focus on another minor character, or not give any character focus, including Justin, and this adds to the mystery of who he really might be.

As I mentioned earlier, I like the way politics are mixed into le Carré’s writing. He does it well, and manages not to hit us over the head with things, while still presenting a very clear picture of his view of the things he’s discussing. If you’re looking to write a novel that includes politics, you’d do well to read some of his works; even if you don’t like the books, I think you’ll find some of the devices he uses very clever. Of course, the danger is that I’m going to end up becoming a le Carré clone, since I’m thinking that politics will play a role in my novel, too. Oh well; if I’m going to be a clone, I guess he’ll make a good role model.