Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

By Jo
This, in many ways remarkable, novel begins as the story of the murder of Tessa Quayle at the hands, we quickly learn, of goons hired by Big Pharma with the tacit cooperation of the English and probably a couple of other governments. It quickly turns into what the nineteenth century would have called the moral education of Justin Quayle, Tessa's husband and an all-round lovely character.

Justin is a handsome, Eton-educated mid-level diplomat with a no-account job in the English foreign office in Nairobi, where he lives with Tessa, his much younger wife, a lawyer turned human right activist. A first brief-ish section describes the way in which news of Tessa's murder is received at the English high commission. This gives le Carré a chance to introduce us to the way in which Justin and Tessa are perceived by the English diplomatic community. Tessa is immoral and reckless while Justin is a hapless, clueless, and spineless man and cuckold. Soon, though, we find ourselves alone with Justin and begin to learn how things really are. Since what we learn about the criminal politics of Big Pharma in Africa does not increase by much in the course of the novel, what the book really is about is, on the one hand, the truth of Tessa's and Justin's relationship, and, on the other, Justin's personal evolution after Tessa's death.

The former, the truth about Tessa's and Justin's relationship, is truly lovely -- I keep on using this word because it befits this novel, which is told from the point of view of the helplessly polite and kind Justin. This relationship is as tender and free and respectful and, also, mysterious as all wonderful relationships are. The mystery that's at the center of it -- why is Tessa getting herself killed fighting for justice while Justin mildly tends to freesias and plants and absolves the inconsequential duties of his perfunctory diplomatic job? -- bothered me a bit, but I also liked it, because I am always intrigued, and humbled, by the realization that, not infrequently, interpersonal arrangements that look strange and even objectionable from the outside work quite wonderfully on this inside. Still, I would have liked more from le Carré about Justin and Tessa, because fiction has the advantage over life that it can spell things out and, if not tidy them up, at least make them more comprehensible, delve into their complexity, put words to what in life is very seldom expressed verbally. Justin's relationship to Tessa's activities and the people who variously help or hinder her is never explained to satisfaction; in particular, we are never told why Tessa is quite happy to involve Justin's much recalcitrant colleagues in her plans but never Justin himself, and why Justin doesn't make more of an effort to overcome the sense of exclusion he clearly feels.

There are, of course, two dozen easy explanations that come to mind, but it would have been nice, I think, if le Carré had pointed us in one direction, or at least acknowledged our discomfort at not having one. (There seems at some point to be a suggestion that Tessa wanted to spare Justin, but we are never told why; he is certainly not unequal to the task, and, in fact, Tessa shares a lot of her work with him, and receives unstinting support from him. As for Justin, I don't know... maybe inertia?)

Justin picks up where Tessa's left off. He retraces her investigations, discovers the same horrible facts, and does his level best to rectify the wrongs that had Tessa up all night. In an afterward, le Carré informs us that, compared to the evil perpetrated by pharmaceutical companies in the real world, the misdeeds described in this book are child's play. I have no trouble whatsoever believing him. There's plenty literature covering the big travesty and outrage that are drug trials in the first and the third world, one of which,
Mad in America, I recently read and wholeheartedly recommend. Still, it's heartening to see a writer of the skill, intelligence and talent of le Carré expose this situation compellingly and beautifully enough that it behooves Hollywood to pay attention.

The last part of the book is what made me dock a star. The story has run its course, and, though there is a rather beautiful and important scene toward the end, we have learned all we need to learn about pharmaceutical malfeasance, the exploitation of the third world, and Justin's transformation for mild-mannered gardener to fierce lone warrior for justice. The novel turns into pure action and that's a loss, because it is at its best, it seems to me, when it stays solidly inside Justin's mind and heart. So I was left wanting to know more about what makes a man change, what tiny chemical reactions in his heart and brain and muscles give him the strength to turn intolerable grief into love for humankind -- if that is, indeed, what drives him.

Originally posted to GoodReads, reposted with Jo's permission.