Book blurb: The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre

As always I have a pile of books by the bed – some terrific ones too, Jared Diamond’s Collapse , and Tim Flannery’s The Weather-Makers , but they’ve been ignored lately. I’m still working away on Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale and I’m enjoying it so much, the guy is an incredible writer, explains complex concepts and facts of evolutionary biology so clearly but never “dumbs down”. He is also very, very funny, has a delightful self-deprecating dry wit. I don’t want the tale to end, at the same time I can’t wait to read what happens next (or, given that Dawkins is working backwards, chronologically, what happened previously).

I was distracted from the above heavy reading by John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, which isn’t exactly “light” but I wanted some fiction, and to re-read and re-acquaint myself with the characters before I see the movie (whenever it’s released on DVD, that is). Someone told me recently that the movie deviates very little from the book – I’m interested to see how the screenwriter and director got around the fact that most of the action is internalised and based very much on individual character’s points of view.

I can say already that the casting is perfect – Ralph Fiennes as Justin, Rachel Weisz as Tessa, a host of brilliant Brit actors. I couldn’t have chosen better myself (and I think I’d be quite successful as a casting director – I cast the major characters of The Horse Whisperer in my head when the book was first published; I was 100% correct).

The master of Cold War spy stories, le Carre has not allowed the ending of hostilities to affect his ability to tell a cracking good yarn. In The Constant Gardener he turns his attention to Third World aid policy, and specifically giant pharmaceutical companies.

The novel’s action moves around diplomat Justin Quayle’s reaction to his wife’s (Tessa’s) murder, and his search for the truth about her death. Tessa (with co-conspirator and friend, Arnold Bluhm) was dedicated to uncovering a massive scandal in the world of pharmaceuticals and multi-national corporations, and was killed to stop her exposing her findings. The Foreign Office’s goal is to cover this up and discredit first Tessa and those she worked with, and then Justin, following Tessa’s death.

The main characters are more complex than at first appearance; Justin for instance is quiet, self-contained, conscientious and considerate, and as his quest continues new depths to his nature are revealed, as is the nature of his relationship with Tessa.

Major and minor characters are equally complex and le Carre is given to the slow-reveal; they are not always what they seem (and sometimes they are – Tim Donohue remains enigmatic; Pellegrin is thoroughly despicable and immoral). I became quite emotionally invested – half falling in love with Justin when at first he seemed to be weak and detached; also with Tessa, whose passionate, deeply moral nature and unswerving love (and need) for Justin were initially camouflaged by her depiction from Sandy Woodrow’s point of view. Woodrow himself is a thoroughly un-likeable character. He is not the strong, decisive soldier’s-son he thinks himself; he is weak, pathetic, easily influenced and deluded in the way he views the world and women.

The Constant Gardener is a great read, even if you don’t much like spy/thriller-type stories (I don’t) and leaves you with much to think about regarding the real world, the ethics – or lack thereof – of pharmaceutical companies, how successfully world aid policy works. To me, that is a sign of good fiction, regardless of genre, one that leaves you with a thought-provoking message beyond the world of the book.

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