A review of The Rose Notes by Andrea Mayes

Although the story is fast moving and satisfying, with all of the ends cleanly tied up, it isn’t the plot which will stay with the reader once the book is finished. Instead, it is the marvellous passages within the characterisation of Dobie, Thomas, and Pearl. The Rose Notes is a novel rich in poetry and a deep understanding of the intimate connection between the human and natural world, and the subtle ways in which inheritance and beauty can create change.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Rose Notes
By Andrea Mayes
Penguin Books Australia
ISBN 0143003178, PaperBack, May-2005
Pages 340, RRP A$$22.95

It is a testimony to Andrea Mayes’ writing ability that her first novel, The Rose Notes, is more ambitious than it seems. The story itself is moving, and lightly written enough to appeal to fans of all types of fiction, from light romantic comedy to hearty historical fiction, but it conveys a truth deeper than the simple story of lost and found. Set in the southern Riverina district of Australia, the story follows the parallel lives of two main characters, Thomas Hearne and Pearl Kinnear. Both characters are in their early fifties, and at critical points in their lives. Thomas has fallen into a serious depression after the death of his father Henry, and Pearl is struggling with ennui and frustration as she attempts to put her life on hold while she takes care of her demanding aging father Dobie. Both mourn the early passing of their mothers from Cancer, and both struggle with their self-image in the face of their own aging, loveless future, and against the mirrors of their fathers and missing mothers. When Thomas is handed a mysterious tape from his father, he begins a quest to pass on the gift of a unique rose. As he searches for a mysterious woman, Thomas’ quest takes him on a journey beyond the limits of the terrain he crosses. Similarly, Pearl also finds herself transforming, redefining herself, partly through the impact of Thomas’ gift, and partly through her own menopausal transition.

Mayes’ work is full of rich detail, and a clear love of the physical world of its locale, from the flora and fauna, to the inner workings of farm life. The story line moves forward in a simple progression, and is easy to follow, driven by the simple uncovering of clues and helped by its sardonic narrator who continues to remind readers that their pre-conceptions may not be correct: “Is it a rose? Or a time bomb? Tick. Tick. Tick.” (242)

The narrator interjects at various points throughout the novel, laughing at the reader, at the characters, giving shade and perspective, and a sense of postmodern irony. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have produced a cold novel, stopping the reader from engaging. Mayes handles the humour deftly however, and allows the narrator a role which works smoothly within the narration of the story, allowing for dreams, inner thoughts, and sensual imagery:

They sit, side by side on a low stone wall, pale smoke from Robert’s cigarette eddying in the still air. Currawongs and a single butcher bird call from the trees behind them. Thomas is sharply aware of the ripples of dislocated time, the liquid notes of the birds, the odour of tobacco cutting through the fragrance of the roses, the feel of rough-hewn stone behind his jeans, the lumps of brown clay sticking to his boots. This moment will stay with him, caught on the keen point of a quickening excitement. (116).

The real action of The Rose Notes occurs within the characters minds, fuelled by recollection, desire, and the unfolding of potential in reaction to serendipity:

Pearl turns ideas, images, conversations, slowly in her mind, turns and turns and turns. Mamerbrook Farm, Alice’s Rose BookMannie’s slow and gentle smile, Henry’s Pearl and Thomas Hearne, and all her beloved roses. Pity anyone who doesn’t have what Pearl Kinnear has, she thinks, and knows it to be true. Breathing in deeply, she throws her arms wide in all that space, spreading her fingers, reaching and spinning and dancing into her own future, her own time, at last. (383)

Although the story is fast moving and satisfying, with all of the ends cleanly tied up, it isn’t the plot which will stay with the reader once the book is finished. Instead, it is the marvellous passages within the characterisation of Dobie, Thomas, and Pearl. The Rose Notes is a novel rich in poetry and a deep understanding of the intimate connection between the human and natural world, and the subtle ways in which inheritance and beauty can create change. The two stories within The Rose Notes bisect perfectly, coming together slowly, “in their own way, in their own time,” (345) without recourse to romance, or any other devices of plot. The storyline is so clear and easy to follow that the prologue and epilogue really aren’t necessary, and perhaps remove that tiny hint of doubt which makes the story work so well. Nonetheless, The Rose Notesis a beautifully crafted novel, worth reading once for its fast paced, relaxing story, and again for its narrative skill and the beauty of its language.

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