- 15 Jun 21
La Fleur Du Mal
Hurricanes are never a good thing, especially around Florida, and the one that The Garden opens in the aftermath of would appear to have been particularly unpleasant. It should serve as a warning to Perry’s characters that nature doesn’t give a fig about man’s plans and oft seems to be dead set against them, conspiring to thwart us at every turn, but it doesn’t.
Perry is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing out in UCD, has won various prizes for his widely published poetry, and, in partnership with Karen Gillece under the pen name Karen Perry, has been responsible for several novels including the Sunday Times bestselling psychological cuckoo’s egg, Girl Unknown. Though such classifications are really only useful for finding things in a bookshop, you might say that The Garden veers more over to the literary side of the aisle than the thriller shelves.
Swallow, an Irish drifter who just happens to not be drifting while this story takes place, foremans for Blanchard on his orchid farm, which has been decimated by the hurricane in paragraph one. In order to try and get his business back on the right side of the ledger, Blanchard has hired Romeo, an orchidaceae wizard who the boss man pins his hopes on. Swallow isn’t so sure. The first line of the novel has him thinking, “When I first saw Romeo, I thought, here comes trouble.” And he turns out to be right.
Or at least partly right, the trouble mostly stems – yes – from Blanchard himself, a man driven by greed in his quest for the ghost orchid – the flower he assumes will solve all their problems. “For Blanchard the ghost meant survival,” Swallow muses in the centre of the novel. This isn’t the first time a ghost orchid – or Dendrophylax lindenii if you’ve painted yourself into a particularly tricky scrabble corner – has propped up a worthwhile book. Based on her own article for The New Yorker, Susan Orlean wrote 1998’s The Orchid Thief about Floridian plant enthusiast John Edward Laroche who fell afoul of the law despite his defence which pointed to a law loophole that, supposedly, allowed the Seminole native Americans to purloin endangered species of fauna from the local swamps.
Now, I couldn’t tell you if Perry has even heard of, never mind read, that book, although the Seminoles also feature here and they lead the main characters into the swamp in search of said rare flower. Orlean’s book was part of the inspiration behind Spike Jonze’s 2002 movie Adaptation but that’s a different whack-a-doodle story altogether. Anyhow, I’m not insinuating anything or in any way trying to take away from Perry’s achievement here, a man who actually worked on an orchid farm in Florida and had a brother sign up for the military, just as Swallow did.
Blanchard and Swallow come to an agreement with the head of the Seminole tribe and, after one failed trip, they head – Conrad style - into the dark and dangerous Fakahatchee swamp, led by the chief’s nephew Logan, “a psycho” according to Romeo. The swamp comes alive under Perry’s pen, “I knew we were walking on the watery graves of hundreds, if not thousands, of missing persons: men, women, slaves and convicts. The water was made of sunlight and blood.” You can feel the clammy heat on the back of your neck. “The murky water lapped against my chest… who knew what beasts swam beneath the water’s flimsy surface?”
One of said beasts does get involved in a very physical way but that doesn’t stop Blanchard from sending Swallow up a tree in search of “this one small thing” which he hopes “will change everything.” Does it? I don’t want to give the game away but Blanchard’s blinkered obsession means his wife Meribel strays, the same Meribel who points out that “the ghost, nothing good will come of it.” When the marital problems come to a head – literally - it is Swallow who pays the price, as no good dead ever goes unpunished.
There are echoes of Hemingway and Steinbeck – is the ghost orchid Blanchard’s big fish, or big pearl inside a big oyster? – and a whiff of Cormac McCarthy in this modern western, and Perry’s tight prose will be welcome by any admirer of those writers. That’s exalted but deserved company and, on top of that, Peckinpah would probably have considered the ending a good day’s work too. Perry’s book can be viewed as a sort of fable about the perils of man exploiting nature, but it’s also a properly well-spun yarn that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.