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The Devil's Garden Paperback – 2 Feb 2012
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From the Author
Edward Docx was born in 1972 and lives in London. His previous novels are The Calligrapher, and Self Help, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
About the Author
Edward Docx was born in 1972 and lives in London. He is the author of The Calligrapher, which was highly acclaimed and widely translated and Self Help, a contender for the 2007 Booker Prize.
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The most interesting parts of the novel are the scientific journal entries detailing Dr Forle's observations of ant behaviour and the epiphanies he has experienced as a result. This screams two things to the reader: the journal entries are beautifully written; the rest of the story is somewhat dull. Imagine watching an episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' in which the 'Captain's Log' excerpt was the most exciting part of the show. 'The Devil's Garden' is the literary equivalent of that experience.
Docx describes the rainforest with precision and lushness, but fails to do the same with his novel's characters. This gives the reader the impression that Docx resonates with the rainforest but not with the characters he has created: admirable in an environmentalist, but a shot in the foot for a novelist.
'The Devil's Garden' is not a tightly plotted story, but a tale peppered with story arcs that are decorative rather than functional. The book would benefit from strict editing and removal of all the literary window dressing that isn't vital to the plot. While the story has some originality and excellent descriptive flourishes, I couldn't shake the feeling that the tale was moving forward uncertain of its own destination and equally oblivious to what (if any) point it was trying to make.
The novel's deeper questions about how humans behave in a natural environment, without the trappings of civilisation, cutting even beneath layers of religion and superstition that get in the way, is borne out further in the etymological studies of Dr Forle, a scientist who is working there with his team, examining the behaviour and the influence of ants on their environment and the ecosystem. His research however is upset by the arrival of government and army officials who are attempting to register the native population (some of them undiscovered tribes) for initially unknown purposes, but undoubtedly for their own personal interests.
Underlying the book then, the ants and their colony is a fine metaphor for the examination of group actions and individual behaviour in a social context, for comparing and contrasting questions of purpose - whether for commercial, social, religious purposes or just self-interest - and whether those aims are progressive towards a higher, more altruistic purpose or whether they just reflect life as constant change.
That much is made clear early on through some scientific journal entries and in how it applies the struggle that develops between the Amazonian natives and the officials, the events watched with mounting horror by the research team, but Edward Docx doesn't really manage to do full justice to this idea. As a social experiment, the conclusions are, well, inconclusive. As you might expect, self-preservation becomes paramount as events reach critical proportions at an improbable pace, and as such it becomes hard to sympathise with any of the characters. The ideas and the writing then give way to a rolling series of events that have little sense of purpose until it just ends, leaving the reader wondering just what was the point of it all.