John Le Carre, “The Constant Gardener”

I don’t go looking for bleakness, at least not these days. So I finished The Constant Gardener with some puzzlement. What is it that periodically draws me back to John Le Carré? He’s like that bad boyfriend who makes you feel terrible about yourself but whom you can’t resist. The idea of him makes you tense up, but when he comes around again, you can’t help succumbing to his dark charms.

Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya. Tessa Quayle's body is found here.

Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya. Tessa Quayle’s body is found here.

And I did have something of a soft spot for The Constant Gardener among the late Le Carrés, although in retrospect that may be because Ralph Fiennes played Justin Quayle in the rather good film. It is plenty grim, but less grim than some. And as I somewhat unwillingly turned the pages, I remembered why I keep these books on my shelves. Le Carré is just so good at things I care about.

For instance, character development. We meet Justin Quayle as one of those Englishmen whose elaborate courtesy is an impermeable defense and prison. His beautiful young wife Tessa has just been found murdered at a remote lakeside in northwest Kenya. Her death drives him to abandon his manners and his diplomatic career and trace Tessa’s steps unraveling a big-pharma conspiracy. (I suppose Le Carré must provide a certain amount of skulduggery for his readers and I admit I wouldn’t read him without the plots.) Justin discovers that he posses courage and resolve, even recklessness. The energy he used to expend on pruning becomes investigative fervor.

What’s more Le Carré’s always been brilliant with secondary characters. This novel is set mostly in European Nairobi, in the NGO culture of Sudan, in London and European capitals. Lots of variety there and the walk-ons are indelible, like Lara Emrich the melodramatic Russian doctor:

‘I am Lara.’ It was a complaint.

‘Hullo, Lara. Where can we meet?’

A sigh. A forlorn, terminally tired sigh to match the forlorn Slav voice. ‘It is not possible.’

‘Why not?’

‘There is a car outside my house. Sometimes they put a van. They watch and listen all the time. To meet discreetly is not possible.’

‘Where are you now?’

‘In a telephone kiosk.’ She made it sound as if she would never get out of it alive.

But the cynicism is dispiriting, as always with Le Carré. Do I believe that multinational pharma companies would cut corners on clinical trials to bring drugs to market? Yes, probably. Does aid money get siphoned off before it reaches its targets? Sure. Do politicians bend their convictions to accommodate campaign donors? Of course. But the lines between Good and Evil are rather starkly drawn here, with most of the Good represented by Tessa. Who frankly sounds a little hard to take: beautiful, principled, brilliant, seductive, impulsive, beloved by all and adorned with a post-mortem halo. Le Carré’s heroines are often annoying in their perfection. Yet months will go past and I’ll be looking at my shelves for something to read, and I’ll find myself reaching, once again, for one of his books. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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2 Responses to John Le Carre, “The Constant Gardener”

  1. Alex says:

    I’m another reader who constantly finds herself going back to Le Carré and ‘The Constant Gardener’ is one of my favourites. I wasn’t so impressed by the film, however, which I think played up the love story to the detriment of the debate about big business, but then I suppose those making the film couldn’t afford to offend people likely to be useful in sponsorships. Have you read ‘The Mission Song’ which is another favourite of mine, perhaps because I work with people who specialise in translation studies and I know how dangerous a job this can be.

  2. carolwallace says:

    No, Alex, I haven’t read “The Mission Song” but will investigate pronto. And, yes, I agree with your comments about the focus of the filmed “Constant Gardener;” definitely skewed toward the romance. But I did find that part of the plot pretty weak & predictable in the book as well…. And really, if you’re casting Ralph F. in his pre-Voldemort days, you want to play up the Leading Man aspect, no?

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