THE GARDEN. By Paul Perry. New Island.

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THE GARDEN. By Paul Perry. New Island.

I know very little about orchids and even less about ghost orchids. But they’re to be found in Cuba and in the Florida everglades, and the pursuit of these elusive flowers, highly prized because of their rarity, forms the subject of Paul Perry’s atmospheric and absorbing novel, which is set in the everglades.

Indeed, orchids have been something of a preoccupation with the 48-year-old Dubliner, who currently runs the creative writing programme at University College Dublin and whose second volume of poetry, The Orchid Keeper, was published by the Dedalus Press in 2006. This, though, is his first novel, or at least the first written by himself under his own name.

Previously and intriguingly, he was the co-author of four international bestselling thrillers, along with fellow Irish writer and long-time friend Karen Gillece, the two of them using the pen name Karen Perry and contributing alternate chapters to each novel before making amendments to the chapters that had been written by the other.

That sounds a contrived, indeed convoluted, way of writing these thrillers (I haven’t read them), but there’s nothing formulaic about Perry’s vivid solo novel, which has interesting pre-echoes in his own 2006 poem, Wintering, where the poet reminisces about his “last year in Florida, illegal and thinking of marriage as one way to stay” and spending his time working on an orchid farm “to protect the fragile flowers”.

The narrator of The Garden is also an Irish-expat and goes by the name of Swallow. After a traumatic boyhood back in Ireland, he emigrated to the United States, joined the Marines and now exists below the radar as right-hand man to enigmatic botanist entrepreneur Blanchard, whose business, the Garden of the title, has been devastated by one of the worst hurricanes in Florida history.

Blanchard’s only hope of financial survival, as he sees it, lies in both himself and Swallow managing to discover a ghost orchid among the impenetrable swamps that belong through heredity to a Seminole tribe and for which affluent buyers are prepared to pay a lot of money.

Swallow is a displaced, indeed lost, soul in this febrile environment but then so are the other inhabitants, not least the middle-aged Blanchard obsessed to the point of mania about acquiring a ghost orchid and drunkenly beating up his long-suffering wife, with whom Swallow has fallen in love.

There’s also bartender Lola, with whom Swallow has an on-off semi-casual relationship and there’s young Romeo from Honduras, hired recrited by Blanchard for his expertise with ghost orchids, and later in the narrative there’s a hunt for the orchid itself, an expedition that’s the visceral narrative centrepiece of the book and that sees Romeo savaged by an alligator and that ultimately ends up with the violent death of some key characters for trespassing on sacred ground.

Indeed, for Swallow, as they had set out that morning on their search for the ghost orchid, “the good vibes gave way to a deep and hollow dread, which found its way into the pit of my stomach… It would all be worthwhile, I tried to persuade myself, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of unease”.

As for Blanchard, finding the ghost “meant survival… Already I was beginning to wonder whether it would be enough to save the Garden”. And Swallow ruminates further: “I guess the ghost had started to haunt us all in various different ways… Imagine it, a flower so elusive and mysterious that it contained all you ever yearned for, and all you couldn’t have. That the ghost existed deep inside the swamp meant risk, treachery and possible death, but also life, survival, redemption”.

This is laying on the metaphorical associations a bit thickly, but the narrative just about gets away with it. In fact, there’s an awful lot going on in a book that runs to only 230 pages, though what’s most impressive is the way in which the author brings almost all the characters to vibrant life – you feel you know these people, including the transient migrant labourers employed by Blanchard and with whom Swallow shares quarters.

But there are puzzing gaps in Swallow’s account of his own background. We hear about the suicide of his teenage brother, Jamie, which, we’re to infer, was a cause of considerable trauma for him – indeed, necessitating his emigration the US – but this strand is not deleloped further and there really seems no reason why he’s been given an Irish nationalty or why it should mean anything to him. It’s if the story about Jamie had strayed in from another novel and then was promptly forgotten.

But occasional flaws aside, this is an exceptional novel that lingers in the memory.

* John Boland’s latest book of verse, Near and There: New and Selected Poems (Clarinda Press) is available from bookshops and from

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