A thrilling page-turner

2011-08-17 00:00

DOCTOR John Forle is a widowed English entomologist working in a research station on the banks of an tributary in the claustrophobic ­Amazon forest. 

The scientist’s organised views of the world are challenged by the ­arrival at the camp of a shrewd, ­cynical and erudite judge, and a ­taciturn and brutal colonel sent with his minions to oversee the government’s registration of the forest’s ­inhabitants for an electoral register.

The ostensible reason for the ­registration — “democracy and ­enlightenment” — is quickly ­exposed as treacherous rhetoric. Soon after the strangers’ arrival, Forle witnesses the sadistic torture of one of the forest’s indigenous inhabitants.

In the presence of these sinister forces, Forle’s life’s work on ants starts to seem inconsequential — at times, even to himself — and the reputation and intellectual authority he held as a scientist starts to ebb in the face of the more brutish imperatives of corruption and greed.

The increasingly outraged and frustrated Forle himself becomes a target when he attempts to save the life of an indigenous forest-dweller ­accused of spying. In the process of escaping, he learns what he is capable of — not as a scientist, but as a human being.

There are strong echoes of ­Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this novel, not only in the stifling setting of the river station, but in the way in which Docx grapples with the dark patches of the human psyche.

Existentialist issues aside, the book is a thrilling page-turner. ­Edward Docx (author of Calligraphy and Self Help) is a deft storyteller who manages to achieve a fine balance in his rendering of suspense, action, violence and information. Through Forle, the reader is drawn into the complex and fascinating world of ants, and learns a thing or two about Indigenous Indian belief systems, and the precarious natural integrity of the Amazon. Owing to Docx’s feel for words, however, none of it feels like a tutorial.


The Devil’s Garden

Edward Docx


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