Published by Transworld Publishers Limited on April 9th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
Buy on Amazon, Buy at Forbidden Planet
Warm-hearted fable of a stay-at-home husband who learns an important lesson in life when an unusual creature enters his life.With all the charm and humour of THE ROSIE PROJECT and ABOUT A BOY mingled with the heart-swelling warmth of PADDINGTON BEAR MOVIE.A story of the greatest friendship ever assembled.Ben Chambers wakes up to find something rusty and lost underneath the willow tree in his garden. Refusing to throw it on the skip as his wife Amy advises, he takes it home.
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The ‘character goes on a journey of self-discovery’ trope is a well used one in all forms of art, but it’s rarely done as wonderfully or with such imagination, as in Deborah Install’s début novel ‘A Robot In The Garden‘.
Ben Chambers has little to do in life. Left a tidy inheritance after his parent’s death, including the house he lives in and his clapped out car, he sees no need to do much more than be there for his successful, highly motivated, barrister wife Amy. So when he wakes one morning to discover an old battered robot sitting in his garden, gazing lovingly at horses in the paddock close-by, he takes it upon himself to track down it’s previous owner. Much to his wife’s dismay, he loads up a backpack and with ‘Tang’ heads off to California on the first leg of a continent-crossing adventure, discovering that he’s actually a far better human-being than he’d ever been led to believe.
And what an adventure it is! Install has created an immediately loveable character in the form of ‘Tang’ the robot. Named by Ben as it’s one of the few words he can say to begin with, Tang develops a formidable personality; determined, cheeky, manipulative, insightful, it’s clear his artificial intelligence is sentient and he’s slowly learning from Ben. As with the plot, Tang surreptitiously drives the narrative, never overwhelming it, in much the same way as his actions push Ben towards the major decisions he needs to take in his life. Often, where a main character is non-human, their human counterpart tends to suffer, but in ‘A Robot In The Garden‘ Ben is just as strong. You feel sympathy for him from the beginning as he’s clearly dominated by his ambitious wife and has always been over-shadowed by his dominant, over-bearing older sister Bryony, who also happens to be Amy’s best friend. So when Amy announces early on that she’s divorcing Ben and going to live with Bryony until she’s sorted, you not only feel for the guy, but also have that sense of ‘good riddance’ as you know that this means Ben can get on with finding out the truth about Tang.
The plot never feels tired and it could easily do so, especially as Ben and Tang’s mission takes them from one lead to the next, spurred on by the varied characters they meet on the way and the urgent necessity to get Tang repaired by his creator. The world Install has created is so believable that to go from a Californian Android whorehouse, to a Tokyo laboratory, via Texas, ending their physical journey on a far off island, never causes raised eyebrows. This is helped by large doses of humour, especially physical, and Install has a great touch in that department, bringing about genuine giggles. Be prepared to reach for the tissues as well though, as there are many moments that will tug on the old heart-strings – especially if you’re a fan of robots. Install’s descriptive talents really come to the fore in her characterisation of Tang; you can envision each eye flutter and head tilt, and every time he plays with the gaffer tape that keeps the flap on his front closed, you will melt. Install references her toddler as an influence for Tang’s quirks, and as a mum I can so see that here, this is very much a father/son relationship with all that it entails. We’ve got everything from parental doubt, annoyance at not being listened to, irritability, and every parent’s favourite – pester power! On the flip-side though, there’s also fear, heartbreak and a deep overwhelming bond that, at the point where it’s close to being broken, you will be willing it to continue with every word.
As well as the main aspect of Ben and Tang’s relationship ‘A Robot In The Garden’ also conveys a very strong message about acceptance and understanding. Tang is ‘one-of-a-kind’ and surrounded by android serverbots, he feels intimidated, especially when he’s mocked by either the bots themselves or their owners. Not having a set purpose or role, Tang often feels inferior to other bots, and also has a deeply instilled mistrust of them. With humans on the other hand, he is open and honest with all, sometimes brutally, learning from them continuously. He may not be shiny and new and doesn’t often get things right, but his willingness to learn often makes him more human than Ben. This touching scene, shortly after Tang dangerously overheats, is a fine example of Install’s ability to get you right in the ‘feels’:
‘Tang not friends with sun.’
‘Aw, Tang, I understand. But it’s OK. The sun’s not all bad. Can’t you forgive it?’
‘Yes, forgive. You know, like when someone does something to upset you or hurt you, and they say sorry and you’re friends again? No?’
‘Tang not …never forgiven. Don’t understand.’
‘I think you have,’ I told him. ‘I think you’ve forgiven me hundreds of times without even realizing it. Remember when I tried to put you in the hold on that first flight, and you got upset with me?’‘Yes.’‘Well, then you stopped being upset with me, didn’t you?’‘Yes.’‘Then you must have forgiven me, otherwise we wouldn’t still be friends. And we are friends, aren’t we?’
‘Yes. Ben is Tang’s friend. Tang loves Ben.’
I felt a lump in my throat, then, and didn’t know what to say. Here was a robot who didn’t understand the concept of ‘why’, who struggled with the idea of motivations. He’d never been taught forgiveness, so he hadn’t known whether he was doing it or not. But of all the complex human emotions he could have settled on, he seemed to understand love.
I bent down and put my arms around his small shoulders.
‘Come on, Tang, let’s watch this sunset.’
There’s many moments like this, many I just highlighted with a simple ‘Ooof’, but they’re never manipulative. This isn’t ‘Hallmark movie of the week’ heart-string tugging, this is Wall-E in the rain protecting Eve, this is Merida’s mum as a bear trying to talk to her daughter, this is Rocket Raccoon drunkenly ranting his anger at his mistreatment. Right. In. The. Feels.
I really can not recommend ‘A Robot In The Garden‘ highly enough, and it’s already a strong contender for my book of the year. Combining the wit, turn of phrase and eye for an absurd situation of the master Terry Pratchett while hitching a ride on Pixar’s emotional rollercoaster, Deborah Install is going to be one to watch. Transworld/Doubleday have a star in the making right here.