Book Review: The Gardener of Eden by David Downie

January 21, 2019 at 12:54 pm Leave a comment


David Downie is primarily known as a food, wine, and travel writer, but this is not his first work of fiction. Paris: City of Night, a thriller set in Paris, was published in 2009. (And I interviewed him about that book here.)

The publisher of his latest book, The Gardener of Eden, has described it as a work of literary crime. The author himself, in his blog describes it as a work of “literary suspense.” I will leave it to you to determine which of those two descriptions is the more accurate. But I can concur with other reviewers in saying that it is indeed a dark tale with plenty of unsettling suspense. (I had a hard time maintaining my cool especially toward the end: it is gripping!)

Despite the fact that normally it is hard to get me to read (and especially to review) anything that is not set in France (a function not so much of my close-mindedness as the frustrating lack of time available to do everything one would like to do), such is my admiration for Downie’s writing that of course when provided with an advance copy I couldn’t say no. And I found myself drawn into the story very quickly indeed, despite the fact that it is set in coastal California, not France. The first chapters introduce three of the main characters, who are all very compelling; and their quirky relationships and the clever repartée that passes between them is so lively and entertaining that I was quickly and thoroughly engaged.

While it is true that the story hinges on some deeply disturbing observations of contemporary American culture, one of the main things that moved me while reading it was indeed its literary quality. Downie is both a masterful writer, able to describe complicated, breathtaking sequences of physical action with accuracy (this is very hard to do!) and a very lyrical one. Here’s just one example of what I mean about the latter:

 A stand of mature blue gum trees rose ghostly and shivering into the mist along an unpaved access road topping the cliffs. Beyond a clump of honey-scented purple buddleia and clotted blue ceanothus, James made out the banisters of a wooden staircase. It was lichen frosted, bleached, and sandblasted by the wind. Zigzagging down to the rocks and beach, it ended in knotted clumps of wind-burned, brittle flowering ice plants dangling from the sandy verge. The air smelled of salt and skunk, honey and eucalyptus, bay leaf and cypress. James closed his eyes and felt tears welling up.

There are many such poetic, sensually precise, evocative passages woven into the story. It is not the only reason why this is such a pleasant read, despite the overall darkness of the tale: but it is one of them.

I have admired David Downie’s work for some time: he is an intelligent, graceful writer capable of doing with words almost anything you need them to do: his work is always very interesting and is energized by a passionate undercurrent, whether overtly expressed or subtly and elegantly woven into the story. In Gardener of Eden he is at the top of his game: word has it that he is working on his next novel. I can hardly wait to read it.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the City University of New York each summer. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You. She is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.” 




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