The Garden, by Paul Perry, New Island, €14.95, 256 pp, ISBN: 978-1848407992
“When I first saw Romeo, I thought, here comes trouble.”
That’s the opening line of Paul Perry’s debut novel, The Garden. It’s a debut only in the most literal sense. Paul Perry is one half of the thriller-writing duo publishing under the name Karen Perry ‑ the other half is Karen Gillece. They have co-authored no fewer than four international bestsellers, including the Sunday Times bestselling psychological thriller Girl Unknown. Paul is also a poet, with more than five collections published.
That first sentence seems to offer promise of a Western-style adventure, albeit one set in the steaming Everglades and not the arid western states. Our narrator, Swallow, works at an orchid farm as foreman of a group of workers, many undocumented and transient, from several countries, some with backgrounds they are reluctant to talk about. The outhouse the men sleep in is called “the barracks” – a clue as to how the manager, Blanchard, runs the farm.
A recent hurricane has laid waste to the greenhouses and trees (essential for growing orchids) of the Garden – which is what the owner insists on calling the farm. The other nickname is “Paradise”. The Garden is unable to recover from the disaster. The owner however has a cunning and legally grey-area plan: get a guide from the Seminole tribe to lead them through the swamps and retrieve the elusive and impossible-to-propagate Ghost Orchid. Blanchard has international buyers lined up, willing to part with big money for this rare, beautiful, and very real flower. National Geographic had a whole article dedicated to the ghost orchid in late 2019.
We have here the elements of a classic Vogler’s “hero’s quest”: enemies and adversity are overcome on a journey to a remote location, where our hero acquires the life-saving elixir and brings it home. We are given all that, complete with alligator attacks and an orchid that is plucked from the top of possibly the highest tree in the swamp.
Swallow however is given to introspective musings, and the novel at several points invites reflection on the degradation of the environment. This makes it more literary fiction than thriller, despite the couple of showdowns and tense bar-room scenes. Swallow has an outsider’s heightened sensitivity to the landscapes and outlandish characters – he’s Irish, though this doesn’t play much of a role apart from giving him a natural sympathy with the other immigrants under his command.
In interviews Perry has said he lived in Florida for three years and imbibed the hyper-real vibrancy of the place. This certainly shows in the writing, both in the Everglades scenes and in the vivid shorter scenes in the city. There are a couple of archetypical highway scenes where Swallow describes the sight of pumpkin farms, blazing sunflowers, or burning cars.
Perry evokes the omnipresent humidity and riotous foliage with such skill that the reader will be sweating: “the sheer variety and vibrancy of plant-life seemed to dye my field of vision. You could almost feel the thickets breathe.” “The smell of earth, and the greenness starting to take back, or the swamp beneath us trying to reclaim what belonged to it – without human interference, all elemental.”
This sentence hints at another concern of the novel: the uneven battle between man and nature. The aftermath of the hurricane may give the temporary impression that man is at the mercy of nature. And yet relentlessly over the decades the swamps have been pushed back. The near extinction of the ghost orchid is just one of the losses.
Their guide on the orchid hunt is Harper – a vividly portrayed part-Seminole ex-marine who lives in a shack far removed from both his tribe and the city. Harper creates sculptures from old junk and grows a little weed among the flowers he cultivates. In a marvellous Heart-of-Darkness-style voyage, he guides Swallow and his men “through the blood-soaked water with the gators and the snakes” to the location of the ghost orchid. He uses a home-sketched map, because, as he explains, “the glades are getting smaller” and man has encroached on the swamp and redirected the waters.
Perry is at his most inspired when describing landscapes and nature: “The heat had penetrated my limbs, baking me into the submissive rhythms of mindless toil.” A morning car trip is evoked with “a fine mist rising from the fields about us, and from the asphalt that shimmer of morning heat that makes you think you’re about to enter a mirage”. As mentioned above, Perry is a well-regarded poet. His second collection, published in 2006, is entitled The Orchid Keeper, indicating that some themes of this novel have been brewing a long time.
In a minor scene in the latter half of the story, Swallow goes on a binge and ends up boozing with a “born and bred Floridian”. This drinking buddy launches into an eschatological vision of Florida as “God’s country” because there is no reason for humankind to be able to exist out there. Swallow meekly counters that it’s difficult to believe in God when we see the death and destruction of the recent hurricane. “Did I say he was a loving God?” the man responds fiercely.
This vignette seems to convey something about America, more specifically the southern states, and the sense of destiny that merges into fundamentalism. But the scene also makes us aware of what has been lacking in the novel: that sense of contingency that real life brings. There has been too much that is subservient to the plot. The characters fail at times to spring into life. There are too many bland observations such as “We drank some more while silver moonlight spilled into the cabin.”
In an earlier scene the gangster-minded Logan overtly threatens Swallow. Moments later Swallow pauses to reflect: “something about his gaze suggested to me he was aware on some level that he had failed his forbears and become separated from a knowledge of the land his people once had’. Hardly the right moment for such thoughts.
Swallow’s reflections on what’s happening are too often heavy-handed. After several dozen pages of the Ahab-like hunt for the ghost orchid, when they are chest-deep in the swamp, he reflects: “I guess the ghost had started to haunt us all in various different ways.”
After a later escapade Swallow comments: “We were all worn out, not so much with the physical effort, but with the emotion of it all. It was draining. I felt spent.” But this is not after some Sunday escapade to the seaside: they’ve just seen their friend murdered and have clandestinely burned the body so as not to involve the police. There are other moments where Swallow, and by extension the story, is excessively reasonable and fails to be in the moment – he jokes deferentially with the boss only days after threatening to kill him if he beats Meribel (his wife) again. For all that, it’s a gripping and feverish tale of greed and the destruction of nature. The tension ramps up in the last third, and the quality of writing tautens and rises to the occasion as the reader is swept along to the blood-soaked conclusion.
Aiden O’Reilly is the author of the short story collection Greetings, Hero. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared widely, including in The Dublin Review, The Irish Times, the Dublin Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, the Stinging Fly, 3am magazine, Litro magazine London, and Unthology. He won the biannual McLaverty Short Story Award in 2008.