The Book Club

The Constant Gardener

Dear Marjorie,

Hello again, in a whole new year. I want you to know, to set the scene, that I’ve just removed from the microwave a tasty supermarket-issue Vegetarian Chili Ready Meal, the local equivalent of a Stouffer’s frozen dinner and my lunch for today. So unnerved was I by our pre-Christmas death march through those fancy cookbooks that I’ve pretty much lived on Ready Meals (and chocolate) for the past month. Meanwhile the cookbooks are positioned on my kitchen shelf, silent and reproachful reminders of my own peasantlike culinary tastes.

How nice to get to talk about a novel this week, and one that’s so good. I’ll summarize so that we can be sure we’re both discussing the same book and not a manual on the care and feeding of delicate perennials that was published 20 years ago but that Amazon coughed up by mistake. But of course that’s not the case, because from the first pages of The Constant Gardener, you know you are in the familiar and always capable hands of John le Carré. The book begins with a crisis when news of the violent murder of Tessa Quayle, a young and beautiful white relief worker in Africa, reaches the assorted bureaucrats, hacks, and spies who populate the British High Commission in Nairobi where Tessa’s husband, Justin, works in a midlevel diplomatic job.

At first, the death appears to be one of those embarrassing incidents that governments, especially the British government, hate to have happen in foreign countries because of the scandal. Tessa was known for her radical views and unwillingness to stifle her idealism and outspokenness; at the time of her death, while she was up-country in Kenya, she had been traveling with a black African doctor who was widely assumed to be her lover and who has inexplicably vanished from the jeep in which her naked and beaten body was found. Her husband, a heroically polite, by-the-book Englishman of the sort often found in le Carré’s work, 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, and things are not as they seem. Not for nothing is Justin the title character–the constant gardner–in this intricate and angry book, and not for nothing does the perspective shift, in an exciting and interesting way, to him after about 100 pages. (It’s a long introductory setup, and you might be asking yourself, “So what?” at that point, but it’s worth it for what comes later.) And as more and more questions begin to be raised about what Tessa was doing, exactly, in Nairobi–and how it fits in with an awesomely powerful pharmaceutical company heavily connected to a number of overtly and covertly corrupt governments in Africa and the West–Justin becomes an unlikely avenging angel, one who defies his stodgy Etonian background and every convention he has ever clung to in a quixotic quest for the truth about the life and death of the woman he loved.

Much more happens after that, but I personally hate it when people give away plots in reviews (or even book clubs) and spoil the fun of getting to find out what happens next. And this is one of those books where you really want to know what happens next, so much so that you stay up as late as you can night after night, flinging eye drops into your eyes, until you finish it. Or at least I did.

The commonplace about le Carré is that the end of the Cold War robbed him of his great theme and left him with nothing much of consequence to write about. But what has made some of his books still worth reading in the postwar era is that he has always been far more than a simple writer of spy thrillers. His novels are dense and richly plotted and full of complicated examinations of how things like loyalty, honesty, self-preservation, and memory can become murkier and murkier the deeper you get enmeshed in something bigger than yourself. Most of his best characters are plagued by conflicting loyalties of one kind or another; the trick is to see how the conflicts play out.

For me, now, the only problem with reading any new le Carré book is inflated expectation. His greatest books–The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the Smiley trilogy that ends with Smiley’s People, and (to me, at least) The Little Drummer Girl–set such high standards of writing, of plot, of character, and of suspense that the lesser ones can prove cripplingly disappointing. By the standards of someone else, novels like The Tailor of Panama or Single & Single, two of le Carré’s relatively recent books, would probably be considered very good, but not by the standards the author has set for himself. I can’t even read his lower-tier books because they seem so insubstantial in comparison to, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I wouldn’t say that The Constant Gardener is as good as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold–it would be hard for le Carré to write a better book than that, just as it would be hard for me to ever feel about a new le Carré book the way I did when I was introduced to le Carré through that great novel some years ago. It was a revelation–a spy novel in which the West in its way was just as bad as the East, in which there were no blacks or whites, but only shades of gray. But this new book more than holds its own, I think, because of its mostly fine plot and because of le Carré’s newfound and deeply felt passion about the sins perpetrated by drug companies on developing countries.

What I want to ask you is this: What did you think of Tessa? Le Carré can sometimes be accused–fairly, I think–of short-shrifting his women, of turning them into one-dimensional characters who seem more like stereotypes than real people. I think this was one of his better efforts. How about you?

All best,