Like many in the book business, I get most of my books for free or at cost. While I rarely have the patience or skill to bargain for any other object, when it comes to books the thought of paying retail is, to me, rather absurd. The major exception to my self-imposed rule is in airport bookstores. I travel a lot, and while I love to fly, I’m really not a fan of airports. Whenever I’m stuck in one of those unpleasant transitional warehouses, I allow myself to buy any book that catches my eye. And when passing through Pearson a few weeks ago, what caught my eye was The Rose Garden, a new book by the immensely talented Susanna Kearsley.
There isn’t an easy way to describe Kearsley’s wonderful prose. Possibly the closest comparison I can make is with Mary Stewart. Not necessarily for a similarity of voice, or character, or even type of story; rather, for the gorgeous simplicity with which each of them writes. It is a simplicity that in fact reveals itself to be delicately layered and deeply complex. I’ve loved Kearsley’s work for years, and re-read her books regularly, savouring them for their sense of adventure, their clarity, and their grace.
Susanna is Canadian, and one of the many small pleasures I take in her books is finding her Canuck shout-out. There’s usually a Canadian connection in her books, whether it’s a relative, a new friend, or even a main character. Her novel Every Secret Thing makes WWII Whitby-area Camp X a major plot point. Originally released under the pseudonym Emma Cole, Every Secret Thing is more of a thriller than most of her other books. Enough of a thriller, anyway, that it was nominated for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award, for best novel (it’s being re-released under her own name). But most of her books have British main characters, or at least take place in Britain or Europe. Which, come to think of it, adds to the Stewartean feel.
Kearsley studied politics in university, then changed directions and became a museum curator. Then she left the museum field in order to waitress… and to write. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely in 1993 when her book Mariana won the prestigious Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize. The prize brought Kearsley international acclaim, and a publishing contract worth ten thousand pounds (at a time when the pound was easily worth two and half Canadian dollars). It was quite a coup for a young writer’s second novel.
Mariana established Kearsley as the indisputable champion of the contemporary-historical* novel: a story set in the here-and-now but also deeply involved in the past. Kearsley’s knowledge and love of history is evident on every page, but never in an annoying, ‘let-me-show-you-my-research’ way. Though she certainly puts in the hours. In addition to all the reading and scholarly treasure hunting, Kearsley travels to every one of her settings. The ‘Books’ section of her website is full of photos she took at every location. It’s a sort of whole body approach to ensure that she properly knows how things look, and smell, and feel.
And it works beautifully. The Rose Garden is set in Cornwall. I hiked along the Cornish coast years ago, and reading the book awoke memories I’d not visited in more than a decade. The sound of the wind and water against the cliffs. The look of the trees. The way the light fell, just so. Amazing.
And that’s just the fine detail. I haven’t even touched on the story yet. It sounds almost simple. Eva returns to Trelowarth House in Cornwall, her childhood vacation idyll, to scatter the ashes of her recently deceased sister. Her hosts, long-time family friends the Halletts, welcome her warmly, and she decides to stay awhile. She meets a man, Daniel, for whom she feels an instant connection, and then has to decide if their relationship is strong enough to survive their cultural differences.
And those differences are truly significant, because while Eva is a modern Canadian who works in LA, Daniel lives in Cornwall…in 1715.
The Rose Garden is not a typical time-travel romance, if there is such a beast. Eva has no control over her trips into the past. She doesn’t know why it happens, or how, or how long she might stay on any given venture. And Daniel is a man of his time, albeit an educated and thoughtful one. But the connection between them is strong enough that they put aside their conventional explanations (pharmaceutical hallucination/ witchcraft), and try to deal with the situation as it exists.
So in fact the story is quite complicated. While in her own present, Eva has responsibilities to her friends and her work. And of course whenever Eva is in her own time, Daniel has been dead for centuries. Nor is Daniel’s time without its dangers. His profession wasn’t entirely respectable, and politics was a blood sport back then. But I can’t quite bring myself to make any facile remarks about the problems with long-distance relationships. Eva’s confusion is too real. As is her pain. And the way she manages to work through both is inspirational.
The Rose Garden contains real sorrow (and one of the saddest first chapters I’ve read in ages) but it is also full of change and hope, and the notion that the inexplicable doesn’t have to be a source of fear. The ending even managed to surprise me a little, which is always a lovely bonus. It may be a romance, but it is also a book about loss and recovery, or at least the promise of it. And sometimes, that promise is enough… at least enough to get you out of the airport, off the ground, and on your way.
*Or the historical-contemporary. Contemporical?
Chris Szego likes it best when the planes go up real fast.