A Fragile Spirit: Maria Espinosa on Brian Castro’s The Garden Book

The Garden Books, Brian Castro, Giramondo Press, 2005

Brian Castro is a major literary figure in Australia. Of English, Chinese, and Portuguese ancestry, he was born in Hong Kong and attended boarding school in Australia, where he has lived most of his adult life. Castro’s most recent novel, The Garden Book, is the story of a sensitive Chinese woman and a gifted poet, her marriage to an Australian bushman in the Dandenong hills outside of Melbourne, and the forces of racism and sexism that gradually destroy her. It takes place in the period between the 1920s and the 1940’s.

Darcy Damon, the Australian, has come up in the world from rough beginnings as the son of an alcoholic farmer and a mother who dies of overwork, grief, and childbearing. When he meets Swan, he becomes obsessed with possessing her. A hard worker, physically large, strong, tough, he is also a voracious reader—yet the words do not seem to penetrate his being. He has traveled to China, and in his youth feels torn between the delights of opium dreams, the world of his books, and the roughshod Australian society he inhabits. In courting Swan, he reflects,

He should have thought a bit more about human relationships. The social graces. Etiquette. . . A bushman has rough edges…he read Prowst [sic]. . . he thought about the straightness of [Swan’s] posture, the way she carried herself… Here she was, wearing a skirt to the knees and a cardigan and grey silk stockings… she was smiling…happy to let her father carry the spiky conversation which obviously ran in the family, bringing in a tray of tea…he received [the tea] with both hands, nodding like they do in China. He was aspiring to do things correctly…

Swan, for her part, reflects, “I don’t think Darcy Damon appreciated Baba’s manner of laughing about everything. I caught glimpses of him looking puzzled. [Darcy] had clipped his beard, but he missed some bits, and his face looked as if a bird had stolen tufts for a nest. I think that’s what Baba was looking for in Darcy. Laughter. Mockery…I think Baba was very shocked not to discover that in him.” Swan’s father, Baba, has obtained a Ph.D from the University of Melbourne—the first Chinese to do so—but because of his race, he has not been able to obtain the status he merits and has been reduced to teaching in a run-down country schoolhouse. Although his family has lived in Australia since the nineteenth century, the restrictive laws enacted in 1905 have deprived them of any rights of citizenship, deprived them of the right to hold land, and most important of all, deprived them of the right to leave and return. This has resulted in Baba and Swan’s increasing isolation, as friends and family left for China, never to return. Swan marries Darcy, who offers financial security, a means of survival.
But she is no stereotypical Chinese woman: an artist, a Bohemian, during the early months of their marriage, she manages to shock the locals by provoking Darcy to make love to her in public and by sitting on the deck of their house in flimsy clothing. She flirts, driven perhaps by boredom, perhaps by a desire for amusement, a desire to épater le bourgeoisie. She writes poetry in Chinese calligraphy with hand-mixed ink. She writes on the fronds of leaves, on the bark of trees. Her writing springs from the natural world surrounding her, the Dandenong Ranges in all their harshness, beauty, and wildness. She deposits her leaves of poetry at random in the pages of books. Why? It is connected to the nature of her poetry, organic, fragile as material upon which it is written. She loves music, dancing, society, for a time their large house, with its surrounding guest cottages, becomes a literary center. But her university friends belong to a world which is alien to Darcy.

A child, Penny, is born. Blond, blue-eyed, Australian. Swan feels burdened by the infant. One fatal afternoon, longing for escape, she walks in her beloved forest, rests in a birch grove, and writes. She returns to find Penny blue with cold, not breathing. Breaking down with shock and grief, she spends time in a mental institution. The child’s death marks the real death of the marriage. Darcy treats her with increasing brutality. He banishes her friends. Then one day Jasper Zenlin, American aviator, architect, and litterateur, arrives. He understands her poetry, which he reads in the original Chinese, and he penetrates the terrible isolation in which she has been living. But when he leaves for Paris, she is once again alone.

Zenlin translates her poetry into French and publishes it in Paris to great acclaim. But his letters fail to reach her. This failure of communication is a major theme, given in the epigraph to the novel through a quotation from Kafka,

Writing letters…means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts…Humanity…fights against [this]…to create a natural communication. But…the opposing side is so much stronger…

The public is eager for more of Swan’s poetry. Zenlin’s translations become looser, sexier. It is he who receives the acclaim that is rightfully hers. Meanwhile, in these years preceding World War II, discrimination against Asians grows harsher. Caught up in the general wave of patriotism, Darcy goes into military training. His cruelty towards Swan is exacerbated. He burns the books he once read—books which may contain poems she has written— renouncing the power of words, renouncing any traces of Swan’s spirit. Baba reflects, “The day Australia woke to a national identity, it fell asleep on the thorn of racial prejudice. It was defined by its wound.” Swan is increasingly isolated. Her physical and emotional health deteriorate. Darcy goes off to join troops in the South Pacific. One day Zenlin returns. Only then does she learn the full extent of her literary fame. But it is too late for her. She feels entirely estranged from her world of readers. In fact, publication seems almost a violation of thoughts as fragile as the leaves upon which they were written.

After Zenlin has left once again, Swan gives birth to their son, Shih. But by now she is emotionally broken, alcoholic, in and out of institutions, living on welfare. Shih is taken away from her and put into foster care. Many years later Shih, a collector of rare books for the University of Melbourne, attempts to reconstruct Swan’s past through fragments of old diaries and poems. He, too, lives in the Dandenongs, where he has forged a hermetic existence. He notes, “Her poetry was always a kind of addiction for her because it possessed a latency; with its silences, its potential for growth. Critics had all missed the obvious thing: it was vegetative, incorrigible. Written on leaves with pollen inks. A planting; with scarcely a mark of ownership. A respect and a passing. Her poems were seeds and supplements.”

The novel consists of four sections, one for each of the major characters. However, within each section the voices shift. The entire story flows in a hypnotic and compelling fashion, as these voices are sharply, clearly rendered. It is ultimately far more than its themes. The writing is richly layered, poetic, magical. While each character could be construed as representative of a certain class, each is also unique and complex, a blend of many elements. Swan is not only a victim of sexism and racism, but of her own complex, fragile spirit. In Paris she might have flourished. In the rough society of her time and place, she perishes.