Book review: A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

(image courtesy Random House Australia)
(image courtesy Random House Australia)


Like cat videos and the word “Like”, memes, the perfect joining together of picture and word, find their natural home on the internet.

One in particular, “I Can’t Adult Today. Please Don’t Make me Adult”, is especially popular with grown-ups everywhere, an exquisite summation of the exhaustion that comes from having to be the responsible one, the one making all the decisions, day in and day out whether you want to or not.

For Ben Chambers, the protagonist in Deborah Install’s delightful book A Robot in the Garden, set in a near future where androids are commonplace and robots a quaint anachronism, this sentiment is less a snappy meme cry for help than an accidental life philosophy, one birthed in the grief of losing parents while in his ’20s on yet another of their impulsive see-the-world adventures.

Uncertain of where he life was taking him, flailing to succeed in his veterinary course and with the means to put off seeking gainful employment for as long as he wishes to, the loss of his ever-supportive freezes the young man in time, leaving Ben as the quintessential “kidult”, caught uncomfortably between childhood and the often less than stellar pleasures of “Adult-ing”.

It takes a toll on his sense of self-worth, his marriage to the ambitious Amy, who is tiring quickly of his neither-here-nor-there place in life, and the relationship with his equally go-getting sister Bryony who despairs of Ben ever amounting to anything.

The rather cruel but accurate assessment of all who know him, one unchallenged by the man himself, is that Ben is incapable of growing up, unwilling or unable or both to accept responsibility and look beyond his own now very small world, which doesn’t extend very far between the edges of the garden of the house his parents left him five years earlier on their death.

And then something miraculous happens.

A small, adorably cantankerous one-of-a-kind handmade robot calling himself “Acrid Tang” or “Tang”, turns up in the garden one day sitting up against a willow tree watching the horses next door, requesting, though it takes Ben a while to understand what it is he’s asking, to be taken back to his maker for much-needed repairs.


An alternate cover (image courtesy Penguin Random House)
An alternate cover (image courtesy Penguin Random House)


This simple, but as it turns out, life-changing request transforms the lives of Ben, Tang, and by extension everyone in Ben’s chorus of naysayers, as the two unlikely friends set off on a quixotic journey around the world to find a way to fix Tang before he is no longer fixable at all.

The charm of this exquisitely insightful book is the way it marries a bright and breezy, almost playful tone, undeniable humour – the banter between Tang and Ben which grows in intensity and richness as their friendship deepens into that of child and parent is Abbott and Costello-like much of the time – and some profoundly moving insights about death, grieving, moving forward and the living of life into one highly readable whole.

It’s a grand adventure, a boys own adventure from the UK to San Francisco to Tokyo, to Micronesia and back home again, that is as punctuated by cultural faux pas and learning moments, both for the child-like obstinately curious but emotionally-vulnerable Tang as Ben, as it is tantalising clues about Tang’s origin.

In the end the worldwide hunt to discover who Tang is and how to keep him working, important though it is, plays second fiddle to the growing up that Ben does when he is suddenly and instinctively the one responsible for making sure Tang, who transcends his robotic status to become a friend, companion and eminently valuable family member, not to mention wilfully delightful experiencer of life, stays around to learn more about the world in which he takes inordinate pleasure.

A Robot in the Garden is all about confronting a long buried, barely-faced past, opening yourself up to an unexpected future that looks nothing like you imagined and is all the better for that, and being open to change coming from the most unimagined of places, or robots.

We all have days when we feel like “I Can’t Adult Today” but after reading Deborah Install superlatively unique, clever, humourous and insightful debut novel, you’ll appreciate anew that it’s precisely at those points that life might take the most unexpected, and transformative of turns, remaking your life entirely in the process.


(image via @ciska)
(image via @ciska)

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