The Constant Gardener


Recently, I read a Quartz article about healthcare and I was stunned by how well it summarized the healthcare problem in the world today. I wish I had the link to share with you, but I don’t. However one particular line from the article really had me nodding along with interest, especially because we recently had a health issue in our family where I felt totally gypped by the doctor and the hospital.

Keeping people healthy has no value. Making them sick does.

I also related this quote and this article with my latest read – The Constant Gardener by John le Carré. This is one of those rare novels where I watched the movie first. I absolutely loved it and was so moved by it, that I was hesitant to pick up the book afterwards.

What if the book turned out to be disappointing?

All hesitation vanished however when I spotted this book at a used book sale at a bargain basement price. And I am happy to note that the book was just as good as the movie – a different tone, but still the same heartfelt story.

About The Constant Gardener

The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle–young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin.

When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa’s killers as well.

~ Brief synopsis from goodreads

My Review

At its core, this book is about Western imperialism destroying third-world countries – this is the larger theme of the book. And the focus is especially strong on the pharmaceutical industry. It is also a love story – a very unusual one where a seemingly mismatched couple turn out to be deeply in love.

When Tessa is brutally murdered at the beginning of the book, everyone assumes that she was killed by Dr. Bluhm – widely suspected to be her lover. Her husband Justin, a mild, mid-level diplomat man struck by grief goes forth to get justice for his dead wife. The story then becomes a slow unraveling of what is going on in Africa. Slowly, we come to know that Tessa may have been killed because she knew too much and was threatening to expose pharmaceutical companies that test their products on the poor of the Third World and are willing to accept the deaths that may occur because, after all, those people don’t count. Why not? No one is there to count them.

Slowly (this is a slow book), we meet all the people who Justin meets during the course of his investigation – all of them morally corrupt in some way or the other. We meet corrupt/cynically looking the other way Embassy officials, doctors with or without a conscience, and corrupt corporate honchos.

There are also good people – well-meaning friends in the Embassy, helpful AID workers, and sincere detectives who are unfortunately thrust aside and sent back. The only person left to still fight for Tessa is Justin.

Unlike a traditional thriller, which depends on the big reveal at the end, The Constant Gardener is a gradual leak of information. Midway through the book, I had a pretty clear idea of where the story was heading, and the rest of the book felt a little like just filling in the details. So, yeah, if you are looking for a fast-paced thriller, this is not the book for you.

It’s a slow melancholic reflective look at globalization running amok, and at the same time interspersed with Justin’s look back at his life with Tessa. Both aspects of the story are brought about very well but if I had to pick, I’d say the love story between Justin and Tessa was the more absorbing and ultimately the more touching aspect.

Real-life Parallels

After I finished the book, I read the afterword by the author, and realized this story is actually modeled very closely on real-life events. The story gets a lot of inspiration from the real-life case where unscrupulous drug testing was being done in Kano, Nigeria. Further research revealed that that characters of Tessa Quayle and the side character of Lara Emrich are also derived from real people – Yvette Pierpaoli and Dr Nancy Olivieri. I can’t tell you how sad I felt after hearing this news especially when I read that the real-life people suffered similar fates as the fictional ones.

I think knowing that le Carré felt strongly enough about these kinds of events and wrote an angry book about it makes me respect him so much more than when I read his regular spy thrillers. This book while nowhere near perfect has a great deal of heart and emotion behind it. And because le Carré is at heart a stiff-necked old school Britisher, his very reticence and politeness makes this book even more powerful.

Whole-heartedly recommend both reading the book and watching the movie. Although in this case, I think the movie was a tad bit better than the novel.

You can also buy a copy of this book from Amazon.

2 Responses
  • Natasha Stander
    June 8, 2017

    I’ve always wondered about both the book and the novel – I work in clinical research and it interests me a great deal to research how we got to the point of safety in research where we are today – it was a long, hard road. If you ever find that link, do share it, sounds like a good read!

    • Nishita
      June 9, 2017

      @natashastander:disqus I am pretty interested in that too. This book isn’t heavy on the procedural details on what a pharmaceutical company should do for clinical trials, and some of the history of clinical trials. I am very ignorant on the subject.

      It does seem awful that the company was doing those trials on ignorant folks who didn’t know they were being experimented upon. I don’t even know if that’s allowed or not – I have heard that blind trials exist. Like I said, very ignorant on the subject. And this book doesn’t throw much light either.

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