Books: Ghosts in the swamp

Anna Pavord joins the hunt for a phantom flower through the Florida glades
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The Orchid Thief

by Susan Orlean

Heinemann, pounds 12.99, 350pp

I have always been intimidated by orchids. They seem to look at me in the supercilious way that camels do, noting imperfections of dress and appearance and comparing them unfavourably with their own statuesque flawlessness.

So it was not because of the title that I recently picked up Susan Orlean's book in Rizzoli's bookshop in New York. I'd enjoyed her writing in the New Yorker magazine and I was on my way to Florida. Her narrative, set mostly in that prolific, seamy, restless, corrupted Eden, seemed like a good way to try to come to terms with the place.

It's a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. Its genesis was a brief newspaper report of a lawsuit involving an orchid buff called John Laroche, three Seminole Indians and the theft of plants, including the rare ghost orchid, from the Fakahatchee Strand near Naples on Florida's west coast.

From that small seed grew this brilliantly conceived account of obsession, centred round the enigmatic figure of Laroche, "pale eyed, slouch shouldered and sharply handsome", a man with "the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games." But like the swamps in which the story is set, Orlean's account wanders off into engrossing side channels, exploring perhaps the background of the Seminole Indians or the history of orchid growing or, most rivetingly, the nature of the landscape in which this strange tale is set.

Florida itself became, for me, the most absorbing character in this tale. The author brings the place to life in the most extraordinary way. Here transition and mutation are the status quo. Wetness and dryness drift into each other indistinguishably. Unruliness merges into brief order, and then wanders off into wilderness again. Kuntry Kubbards loom up alongside gas stations, both more improbable than dinosaurs in this swampy terrain.

Often, Susan Orlean makes no obvious attempt to link the various elements and digressions of her story. One channel is explored, then a line is drawn (literally) under that particular aspect and she attacks the shifting mass of her subject matter from another quarter. This device, in a lesser writer, would seem lazy, but here the transitions, though intially abrupt, reveal before too long their purpose in the story.

She uses images with enviable skill, whether describing the Seminole tribe's lawyer "dribbling" his briefcase from hand to hand, the air in the Fakahatchee swamp with "the slack, drapey weight of wet velvet", or an afternoon in an orchid nursery, "a dazed, shambling kind of afternoon, a day seen through a scrim."

Most often, such writing obviates the need for pictures, of which there are none. But this is a book about a quest - a classic genre - and I wanted to know, more clearly than Orlean described, what the object of her quest - the ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii - actually looked like. It isn't listed or pictured in any of my plant books, either. But the fact that she, even after her long, complicated, arduous search, never finds it in flower is entirely apt. Orchids are among a small, select band of flowers powerful enough to set their own agendas.

But you don't need to know anything about orchids or any other plants to be engrossed by this strange story. It was not because she loved orchids herself that Susan Orlean was drawn to write this memorable book. In it, she explores (and half envies) the nature of obsession. She understands it as a way to navigate through a world that offers too many options. She is sympathetic to it as a necessary haven for people who find most other people unbearable.

This sympathy extends to her anti-hero, Laroche, although he comes across to the reader as a wildly irritating, self-regarding nightmare of a man. Well, as they say, you probably had to be there to understand his attraction. But she has a lovely way with irony. Bob Fuchs, another orchid maniac, "had three different alarm systems in his greenhouse in case anything went wrong with the temperature or the light or the humidity, so he was usually very relaxed."

A book as good as this deserved better editing. There is no such plant as an antherium. You can have anthuriums or anthericums. Which is it to be? No monkey orchid six feet tall ever grew wild in Britain. The monkey orchid (Orchis simia) is a very rare British native, never more than 16 inches tall, and usually half that. Paphiopedilums appear as paphiopedilurns, amorphophallus as amorphaphallus. And is it fair to assume that late Victorian nurseries such as Black & Flory were graveyards for orchids? Mackenzie Black had been orchid grower in chief to Baron de Rothschild in Vienna and Paris before he even set up his nursery. He was no slouch on the orchid front. Quibbles only. I was so engrossed in this book on my flight from New York to Florida, I never even noticed we had landed.

Anna Pavord's `The Tulip' is published by Bloomsbury