The Rose Grower
by Michelle de Kretser
Published by Chatto & Windus
299 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
June brings roses.
Michelle de Kretser's roses are alive and sensate beings which insist on blooming lavishly even in the midst of human chaos. Their hypnotic scent evokes an era more than two centuries ago in which France is torn by the Revolution and one family struggles to survive the consequences of irrevocable change.
De Kretser's historical novel blooms as slowly and languorously as the manifold petals of a rose, gradually revealing deeper and deeper layers of complexity. Though there is far more going on here than mere beauty, her voluptuous prose lulls and even seduces us, opening our senses, so that when the horrors of violence inevitably erupt, we have no place to hide.
It is July 14, 1789, a date which will become infamous for the storming of the Bastille, and in the countryside around the small village of Montsignac in southwestern France, a man falls from the sky. This seemingly supernatural event marks the beginning of great and wrenching changes for the Saint-Pierre family, once aristocratic but now fallen on leaner times.
The wounded man, an American named Stephen Fletcher, regains consciousness on the Saint-Pierres' sofa and immediately falls in love with the first person he lays eyes on -- the eldest daughter, vain and beautiful Claire. Never mind that she is already married and has a son by the rich and pompous Hubert de Monferrant. To Stephen it is a coup de foudre: "the lightning flash which reveals the lay of the land between a man and a woman."
The youngest sister Mathilde, a brilliantly precocious eight-year-old, is enchanted by the romantic Stephen who immediately becomes her hero. Not only is he an adventurer -- a balloonist who literally risks his life for the sake of excitement -- he is also an artist, who soon lures Claire into his bed by asking her to pose for a portrait.
Off to one side, almost unnoticed, is Sophie, the plainer, more serious middle daughter, already considered an old maid at 22. At the same time that Stephen's passion for Claire springs into life, Sophie's secret yearning for Stephen quietly blooms. She pours her forbidden erotic energies into gardening and in particular rose-breeding, at which she excels.
Though this is a time when ambition in a woman is considered unseemly, if not unbalanced, Sophie nevertheless longs to distinguish herself by breeding a unique and perfect specimen: "In eighteenth-century Europe, crimson roses do not exist. There are red-purple roses, of course, and rosy-reds, and a sumptuous deep pink overclouded with plum and mulberry. None of which will do." Sophie spends her days caring for her widowed magistrate father and seeking the impossible perfection of the crimson rose.
In the background, the country seethes with political unrest. An idealistic young doctor named Joseph Morel becomes drawn into a wealthy group of revolutionaries nearly as elitist as the monarchy they are trying to overthrow: "It is one thing to believe in equality," one of their members states, "and quite another to find yourself fraternizing with your footman." But Morel persists, believing that with all its faults the Revolution is "a stumbling impulse to achieve goodness."
Morel's disillusionment begins when he is appointed to clean up the sanitary conditions in a primitive hospital in the town of Castelnau. On his first tour he finds incredible squalor: "Close at hand a woman was moaning; Joseph lifted a greasy corner of sacking and disclosed a couple in the act of copulation. Leaping back, he kicked over a chamber pot. The dog trotted up, its tail wagging, to investigate the contents."
Morel takes dangerous solace in wine and is only saved from drowning in it when he is invited to a dinner party at the Saint-Pierres'. Though Sophie is obviously still preoccupied with Stephen Fletcher, Morel is immediately drawn to her quick intelligence and banked-down passion. When Sophie takes a position as a nurse at Morel's much-improved hospital, the attraction increases.
But the horrors of violence continue to escalate. A convent which has been converted into a holding jail for traitors becomes the site of a massacre. Sophie's father discovers the carnage:
There is a boy of perhaps fifteen whose genitals have been hacked off. A man with one very bright blue eye and a sticky hole where the other should be. A thing with curling black body hair and neither head nor limbs. A woman whose throat has been cut, another whose mauve tongue spills from her mouth like an obscenity. Several corpses lack arms, legs, hands -- Saint-Pierre finds himself wondering where they could be and scanning the heaped carts for these missing parts, wanting to fit them together, make them whole.
Saint-Pierre is appointed to investigate the murders by a revolutionary committee which believes him to be so incompetent that he will never discover the truth. Meanwhile the family's safety is in jeopardy when Claire's husband Hubert de Monferrant becomes a counterrevolutionary, fighting on the side of the monarchy.
All this complexity barely scratches the surface of a multilayered story that captures both the historic sweep of events and the small dramas of everyday life -- the meals, the conversations, the scent of flowers. De Kretser is brilliant at recreating the very air of a bygone age in a way which brings it vividly into the present. This is a time when a woman of 53 is considered aged and potatoes are a suspicious new food fad. The worlds of men and women are kept widely separated. Disease is believed to be caused by bad smells.
In the turbulent atmosphere of the Revolution, the sacred and traditional is thrown aside for the civil and secular in a way which echoes today's extremes of political correctness. A nun must be called, not Mother, but Citizen Clothilde. The Cathédrale de Saint-Denis becomes the Temple of Reason. Even children's names must be correct:
"She told me they plan to call the new baby Liberté. Can you imagine?"
As with any realistically created world, The Rose Grower is far from a simple story. The cast of characters is very large, their lives intricately interlaced. What saves the novel from becoming bogged down in complication is the luminosity of de Kretser's writing: "That morning the sky above Castelnau was laid with creamy clouds lit up along the folds like crumpled satin." She speaks of "white birds like clumsy stitching on blue cloth" and "the stainless voices of children."
Such poetry, juxtaposed with the horror of bloodshed leading to a sort of human sacrifice in the Saint-Pierre family, is heartbreakingly beautiful. De Kretser's book portrays ordinary people struggling valiantly to survive and keep their humanity in extraordinary times. The novel's two worlds -- love and war -- are perfectly symbolized by Sophie's blood-colored rose, burgeoning with life, death and the persistence of hope. | April 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.