Dodds, Robert: The Garden of Earthly Delights

goedWe were fortunate to have the author of this book in our midst. He described how he first wrote the story as a radio play and then as a stage play. In 2011 he began working on the novel.  The fifth draft got as far as an editorial meeting at the publisher Polygon, but was narrowly turned down.  It took a further year and a sixth draft before the author arrived at the version that was finally self-published in 2014. We pondered long and deeply on the issue of how an author gets his/her work on the bookshelves in the High Street or into the online marketplace of Amazon.

What did we think of this self-published work?

The first few pages reminded some of us of Hilary Mantel’s work. The use of the historic present tense certainly engages the reader, but above all the images, stenches, and the stark emotions are writ large on every page.  This powerful portrayal of medieval life stays with the reader throughout the book: the squalor, the plague, the evil, the superstition and the all-pervading and bitterly cruel injustice. We are plunged into the year 1490, and we are in the town of Den Bosch, famously the home of Hieronymus Bosch (here he becomes ‘Jerome’). The Roman Church is the main power in the land (and elsewhere), and this power is enforced though agents, the Inquisitors, who go looking for sin.  They punish it ruthlessly with vile tortures and hideous machines.

Jerome, the hard-working artist, is married to Aleyt, and at first they seem like a nice couple albeit surrounded by a chaotic and thoroughly nasty world. But all is not what it seems. She loves Hameel, another local artist and lifelong friend of Jerome. Also living in the house is the stupid servant girl Mary, who is far from discreet about what she has seen and heard. It’s an explosive situation. Now enter the Inquisitor Jacomo, whose commission from Rome is to establish the town as a regional centre for inquisitorial work, and especially to make an up-to-date Inquisitorial Dungeon with the aid of the skills of the local bell-maker. Now add to this the Abbess Dominica, who maintains a public face of piety and as a wise governor of her convent whilst secretly being gluttonous, avaricious and manipulative.  She hates Jerome, who makes no secret of his insight into her true character.

It is a gripping tale that cannot be told in the few paragraphs of this page. The book itself is hard to put down. There are many twists and turns in the storyline. We all enjoyed it. The plot is carefully-woven and logical; there are no loose ends. As I read it a second time, it seemed almost mathematical.  Parts of it are charged with cruelty and gore, and some people might put the book aside for that reason. But not we of the Monthly Book Group: we are inured, habituated, seasoned readers of the shocking.

The most obvious theme is betrayal: lovers betray each other, the Abbess betrays the Church and God, and Hameel betrays Jerome in the manner of Judas Iscariot. But there is also forgiveness: Jerome forgives Hameel in the end, in the manner of Christ himself.  Ironically, the Inquisitor Jacomo shows himself to be a man of integrity: he is incorruptible and capable of admitting that he made a mistake. Jerome is preoccupied with his work and his weird dreams; his sexual energy and hatred of the hypocrisy of the church seem to be given full expression in his paintings. The rest the characters are all, in one way or another, dodgy.

The author’s recreation of the medieval world reminded some of Chaucer. Whilst we have yet no means of time travelling, serious academic scholars of the medieval world present a view which is not very different from that portrayed in this book (e.g. Daron Burrows’ The Life of St Clement).

We discussed the title. Would readers browsing the bookshop ‘get it’? Is Bosch’s work well enough known? Probably ‘yes’, and the design on the cover would lure them to it anyway, if they had an interest in historical novels at all.

Rather little is known of the real history of the time, and the author has exercised his creative talents to a full extent. There is much evidence of underlying research. A historical novel generally attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past era.  This book seems to do that very well.

Apart from Hilary Mantel, comparisons of this work were made with The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the novels of Haruki Murakami, and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999).

As it stands, it would translate easily into a film or play, and perhaps a graphic novel. It is rich in imagery, and the dialogue is well-crafted.