Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

When beautiful lawyer Tessa Quayle discovers a multinational drug company is testing its latest medicine on human guinea pigs in Kenya she doesn’t hesitate to act. While driving up country to gather evidence with a handsome young African doctor she is ambushed and killed. At first sight the murder appears to be a crime of passion.

Meanwhile, as he works at his post in the British High Commission in Nairobi,  her middle-aged husband Justin is given the bad news. The bringer of bad tidings is the head of chancery, the lecherous and Sandy Woodrow who fears his attempts to woo Tessa will be uncovered.

This looks like the setting for a racy thriller, but instead what follows is a complex and delicately crafted novel about a lonely widower’s journey into the mysterious idealistic world inhabited by his wife. In turn exciting, disturbing and charming, author le Carre weaves a modern morality tale that tackles public and private morality, relations between the sexes, corporate cynicism, personal loss and the harrowing reality of everyday life in what remains ‘the Dark Continent’.

You could never accuse Mr le Carre of shying away from the big themes. He is the kind of artist — and make no mistake this kind of writing is definitely art — who likes to work on a huge canvas.

While his early work was best known for its  focus on the private espionage battles between the British secret service and their Soviet counterparts, he also took time to weave these stories around complex themes involving love, marriage, infidelity, betrayal,  loneliness and the human soul. In doing so, le Carre has developed into a very mature author.

Although cast in the same British mould, le Carre’s spies were a million miles from James Bond. His heros are often both shaken and stirred. His villains are complex, flawed characters with venal, often petty, weaknesses and not evil plans for global domination.

Le Carre explains event in terms of personal motivation and there is as much value in what is left unwritten as what appears on the printed page. Indeed, you could argue le Carre uses the conventions and forms of the thriller writer to delve deep inside the human condition.

Many observers speculated that the end of the Cold War would bring Mr le Carre’s writing career to an end. He was, after all, regarded the master of the spy genre. In fact the opposite has happened, since then his attention has moved from one global hot spot, often one step ahead of the TV news cameras. Some critics have pointed out that his writing owes as much to journalism as to story-teller.

There’s stiff a whiff of espionage — in the Constant Gardener the intelligence office at the Nairobi high commission plays a cameo role. However, although exciting and content rich, le Carre’s scenarios are in reality little more than a backdrop for the real action which takes place on a very private emotional and almost reflective level.