The premise of 'The Devil's Garden' is promising. Scientist Dr Forle is deep in the South American rainforest to study a strange phenomenon: ants that work collaboratively to destroy all but one species of plant, creating areas known as Devil's Gardens; behaviour that challenges widely accepted evolutionary theory. When a supply boat containing two menacing individuals - who identify themselves as the Judge and the Colonel - arrives at Forle's research station, his life takes a very different direction. Edward Docx lived in the rainforest while researching this book, and it shows in his sumptuous descriptions of the forest's aesthetics, sounds, colours, smells and myriad lifeforms. Docx's powerful descriptive writing sets the scene in impressive detail, but it can't redeem a chaotically flung-together plot, dull dialogue and a main character who is unremarkable and humourless. While the novel is immaculately researched, its unflinchingly formal prose imbues the book with the feel of an old-fashioned tome rather than a modern tale in which references to satellite phones and e-mail are commonplace.
The most interesting parts of the novel are the scientific journal entries detailing Dr Forle's observations of ant behaviour and the epiphanies he has experienced as a result. This screams two things to the reader: the journal entries are beautifully written; the rest of the story is somewhat dull. Imagine watching an episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' in which the 'Captain's Log' excerpt was the most exciting part of the show. 'The Devil's Garden' is the literary equivalent of that experience.
Docx describes the rainforest with precision and lushness, but fails to do the same with his novel's characters. This gives the reader the impression that Docx resonates with the rainforest but not with the characters he has created: admirable in an environmentalist, but a shot in the foot for a novelist.
'The Devil's Garden' is not a tightly plotted story, but a tale peppered with story arcs that are decorative rather than functional. The book would benefit from strict editing and removal of all the literary window dressing that isn't vital to the plot. While the story has some originality and excellent descriptive flourishes, I couldn't shake the feeling that the tale was moving forward uncertain of its own destination and equally oblivious to what (if any) point it was trying to make.
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