The synopsis of this novel paints a picture of a hot, sticky jungle wherein a story of brutality unfolds itself. It’s a blurb that speaks to the reader and tells you that if you travel the rivers of the rainforest, that you will witness barbarism and the bowels of humanity. What Edward Docx has managed to accomplish with The Devil’s Garden is a sense of foreboding, over a depth of story.
There is of course a story running throughout. The tale of scientist, Dr Forle, lives his days studying ants with a team of locals and scholars. One day the peace of his sanctuary is shattered by the arrival of a judge and a colonel, both of whom have a very different agenda for the surrounding rainforest. On that same day, as night draws in, he witnesses the torture of a man and from that moment the following days are a tumultuous journey of danger and suspense.
Having given you a rundown of the novel, it’s only polite to say that while this plot is the meat of the book, it’s the characterisation of the jungle that brings the book to life. The story itself is rather lacklustre in places and lacks the pace of a true thriller or suspense novel. This is disappointing to say the least, but thankfully the seeds of the story will at least keep you wanting to know how Dr Forle and his team end up on the turn of the last page.
While the plot may not keep you wanting to return to the rainforest, the foreboding dangers will. It’s in Docx’s depictions of jungle life and his descriptions of the overbearing heat and the unknowing of your surroundings that brings home a feeling of desolation. Docx allows his writing to feed off of our natural fears and for much of the novel you get the feeling that the world is closing in around you.
The research that Docx gathered throughout his trip through South America in 2003 and 2007 really shows itself in the prose. When attempting to whisk you away from your life and transport you into the claustrophobia of the forest an author needs to capture that feeling perfectly and Docx does this with gusto.
If you look deeper into the words, Docx has created a book that represents our lives as they stand in society. Interspersed throughout there are excerpts from Dr Forle’s book, where he describes the lives and traditions of the ants that he studies. It’s here that we can reflect on humankind. Dr Forle writes about the ants and how they poison the trees that they live in (which are named Devil’s Gardens giving way to the title) which points to how we as a people are also poisoning our own world in order to survive.
It’s not all brooding symbolism, however. Towards the latter quarter of the novel the story finally springs to life and gives way to a tense denouement that suffices but would have been more explosive had the story have been fleshed out beforehand. What The Devil’s Garden succeeds at, is delivering a book that truly pulls you out of your life and dumps you in a world full of fear.
Whether it’s the distance of civilisation, the animals that surround our cast, the brutality of the militia or the constant anxiety of rainforest survival, there’s plenty here to keep you on the edge of your seat. Docx may not have crafted the best story, but he has certainly developed a world where we all want to visit, but never want to stay.