Set a book in the Amazonian jungle and the nature of the place can’t help but seep into the characterisation. It’s evidently used intentionally to this effect in The Devil’s Garden, which, as the title suggests (opposing the more conventional Garden of Eden imagery), is the location where fundamental questions about human nature are going to be examined and played out.
The novel’s deeper questions about how humans behave in a natural environment, without the trappings of civilisation, cutting even beneath layers of religion and superstition that get in the way, is borne out further in the etymological studies of Dr Forle, a scientist who is working there with his team, examining the behaviour and the influence of ants on their environment and the ecosystem. His research however is upset by the arrival of government and army officials who are attempting to register the native population (some of them undiscovered tribes) for initially unknown purposes, but undoubtedly for their own personal interests.
Underlying the book then, the ants and their colony is a fine metaphor for the examination of group actions and individual behaviour in a social context, for comparing and contrasting questions of purpose – whether for commercial, social, religious purposes or just self-interest – and whether those aims are progressive towards a higher, more altruistic purpose or whether they just reflect life as constant change.
That much is made clear early on through some scientific journal entries and in how it applies the struggle that develops between the Amazonian natives and the officials, the events watched with mounting horror by the research team, but Edward Docx doesn’t really manage to do full justice to this idea. As a social experiment, the conclusions are, well, inconclusive. As you might expect, self-preservation becomes paramount as events reach critical proportions at an improbable pace, and as such it becomes hard to sympathise with any of the characters. The ideas and the writing are what keep the reader going and wanting to read and know more, but that is also because Edward Docx is a powerful writer. Docx’s writing is certainly evocative and I had exceptional vivid scenes of the settings in my head, but the story failed to grab me, as it probably should. I desperately wanted to know more about the behaviour of the ants they were studying and less about the frankly odious government officials. Good, but not great.