About halfway through The Garden, it dawned on me that I wasn’t entirely sure when the story is set. Paul Perry’s debut novel takes place in Florida, and while there are references to hurricanes and characters shipping off to fight overseas, the book feels untethered to any specific point in time. The best parts of The Garden feel like they’re taking place in a vivid dream with people and places that feel strangely familiar, but which also have the potential to take a dark turn without warning.
The action centres around Swallow, an Irish immigrant who works on a Floridian orchid farm. The farm has seen better days and the owner hires Romeo, an enigmatic outsider with legendary horticultural skills, in an attempt to change their fortunes. Before long, Swallow is roped into a plot to obtain a mysterious ghost orchid that is currently under the stewardship of a local Native American tribe, all while trying to keep a lid on the dormant trauma that is threatening to derail his professional and personal life.
The Garden wears its conscience on its sleeve, and the book often feels like an allegory of sorts. Blanchard, the bitter and unscrupulous owner of the titular garden, is a man warped by greed and the desire to cling on to power and influence. It should come as no surprise that the plot to remove the ghost orchid from its natural home doesn’t exactly bring the windfall of good fortune that Blanchard had been hoping for. Swallow’s temptation comes in the form of a love triangle, but also power. His years spent working on the orchid farm make him a natural heir to Blanchard’s throne, but the power comes with a cost, and Swallow has a choice to make.
“The Garden wears its conscience on its sleeve, and the book often feels like an allegory of sorts.”
Swallow’s world is filled with damsels in distress, grizzled mentors and tough guys. At times, The Garden veers towards cliché. Some of the characters feel a bit too familiar. This is compounded by Swallow’s inner monologue which occasionally feels like a movie voiceover reminding you what you’ve just seen happening. But this weakness is also, more often than not, a source of strength. When The Garden works best, it’s like an environmental neo-noir: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, but instead of stealing money from a racetrack, these hard men are after a mystical plant.
In the third act of The Garden, the death and destruction that Swallow has been ruminating about over the course of the book finally arrives at the farm. It’s a satisfying payoff, like the characters have finally arrived at the gates of hell. Some of the violence is shocking (the fate of one character’s ears is a gruesome standout). When the bullets start to fly, you’ll find yourself genuinely concerned about the fate of Swallow and his cohorts. This is down to Perry’s compassion for his characters. He doesn’t judge them for their sins, but the darkness at the heart of The Garden reminds us that someone else might. Joe Joyce