Written by: David Downie
Published by: Pegasus Books
Synopsis: A mysterious beachcomber appears one day on the coastal bluffs near the small town of Carverville, a place whose best days are long behind it. Who is he, and why has he returned after nearly forty years? Carverville’s prodigal son, James, serendipitously finds work at a gentrified motel, but his homecoming soon takes a sinister turn when he and a local teenager make a gruesome discovery on the beach. It forces him to reckon with the ghosts of his past–and the dangers of the present. Rumours, distrust, and conspiracies spread among the townsfolk, all of them seemingly trapped in their claustrophobic and isolated world. But is there something more sinister at work here than the mere fear of outsiders?
Set a few years ahead in the future, one where Trump’s legacy is the widespread adoption of his populist views and attitudes towards immigration, “The Gardener of Eden” is a haunting thriller that uses small-town mid-western America as a backdrop for a tense, yet surprisingly emotional, story of a prodigal son returning to his hometown to search for the girl he left behind. David Downie’s writing is absolutely spell-binding and while it can be a bit complex and hard to penetrate at first, it becomes easier as the novel progresses and the story begins to unfold. One area where he particularly excels is in his dialogue, with the character Beverley standing out in particular, as she constantly chats and makes pop culture references in what reads like a stream of consciousness. Downie is able to convey her character to the reader almost immediately, using her dialogue to showcase her personality effectively – especially contrasted against the cautiously quiet James.
Initially, the novel revolves around the mystery surrounding James as he returns to his hometown, stirring up animosity from the law enforcement and raising concerns as to his true motives. Downie drops various hints and clues, alluding to James’ childhood experiences in Carverville and how they influence his decisions in the present. Midway through the novel, an event occurs that switches the perspective and the story becomes more of a murder mystery with a touch of conspiracy. Without giving too much away, the story feels reminiscent of Twin Peaks at times, evoking that same sense of unease and distrust of small, remote communities and their attitudes towards outsiders. Downie uses modern technology, such as remote-controlled drones and CCTV, to create a sense of paranoia and fear that is equally applicable to our daily lives.
“The Gardener of Eden” is a curious hybrid of genres, blending a nostalgia-driven homecoming with a dark, politically-driven small-town conspiracy. The two styles work well together and result in an engaging novel that is rich with atmosphere. It is a tough read, initially, but one that rewards persistence as the various jigsaw pieces begin to connect and form a bigger picture. The slow, lackadaisical pace of the initial chapters may frustrate some as the novel relies more on gradually unveiling its characters and revealing the relationships between them. However, once the novel begins in earnest, it becomes extremely readable and the tension is palpable on the page once the threat of danger is uncovered.
Despite my unfamiliarity with America’s Midwest, I still managed to get a real sense of location about Carverville and its small-town personality. A shadow of its former self, and eager to believe “America First” rhetoric, the xenophobic attitude of its law enforcement is scarily believable and while Downie takes some aspects to the extreme, the novel feels cautionary at times – a haunting premonition of where populism and narrow-minded attitudes might lead us. That feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is an effective horror technique, whether it is stumbling upon rednecks in the woods a la Deliverance, or the pagan rituals of rural England as in The Wicker Man, it creates a real sense of unease that I enjoy reading, and Downie really captures that tone in his writing. Towards the end of the novel, things feel claustrophobic and our heroes appear fenced in and unable to escape the “long arm of the law” – it is a terrifying concept, and one that lingers in the mind long after the book has finished.
Beautifully written, “The Gardener of Eden” evokes a real sense of time and place with its ominous warning of things to come. Carefully balanced, the novel is the ideal mix of socio-political commentary and human drama, subtly showcasing the aftermath of a Trump presidency without resulting to fire and brimstone. These are the human consequences of “putting up a wall”, and Downie never loses focus of the individual. A fantastic read, “The Gardener of Eden” is a literary triumph that deserves widespread attention, both as a piece of fantastic writing and as a warning to the inhumanities of the populist movement.