Published: 1997 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “He must be careful not to forget that the traveller was a scholar first and last, a dreamer who could not distinguish between elaborate speculation and the analysis of facts.”
‘Peculiar’ is an adjective that turns up in a high percentage of other reviews I’ve read of this historical novel from Australian author, Nicholas Jose. And while there’s much to admire here I can’t deny it was certainly one of the odder armchair journeys I’ve made this year – a result, I think, partly of the novel’s style and partly of its subject matter. As implied by its title, which alludes to – among other things – the main character’s obsession with grafting a new floral variety, this is a tale of miscegenation. A verdant, uninhabited island becomes the stage for cultural and botanical mixing: East and West collide as English and Chinese castaways forge an unusual alliance. Such hybridity is also reflected in the novel’s form: The Rose Crossing is all at once an episodic adventure tale of botany and exploration; a fatalistic, dreamlike fable; a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and a critical interrogation of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is a mirroring of structure and content that is occasionally ingenious but more often muddled.
Jose’s Prospero is Edward Popple, a seventeenth century English naturalist. Popple’s story begins at the dawn of a new era, the beheading of Charles I. Though Popple’s first-hand witnessing of this epoch-ending event made for a dramatic opening, in hindsight it felt rather contrived. The tremors of change would have been felt violently enough by all those living through that turbulent time without them having to be physically present at the execution. Although his family are royalist sympathisers, Popple – who prizes horticulture and learning above any god or king – boards The Cedar, a ship bound on a voyage of discovery, not to escape the emerging Puritan regime so much as to flee an increasingly incestuous desire for his own daughter Rosamund, the second Rose implied in the title.
The titular “Crossing” for Ros initially means cross-dressing: she stows away and passes as a cabin boy to join her father (this is not a spoiler, it’s a plot point highlighted on the novel’s back cover blurb). But, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, the term also alludes to her interactions with the island and with the Chinese castaways: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” Ros is an interesting figure and I liked the contrast between her world-view and that of her father. While Ros is very accepting of nature, both of her own passions and the rhythms of the lush tropical world around her, Popple strives constantly to subdue desire and to improve and perfect the flora around him. At the same time, however, Ros’s character could have been more developed and I often found myself longing for a more sustained insight into her emotional state. Although she is clearly meant to represent the body to Popple’s mind, her actions are rarely explored as fully as they deserve to be. The tempo of this novel is rather uneven: the story lingers on Popple’s memories and reflections, retelling the same moment several times, insightfully, but at a glacial pace, then suddenly a huge dramatic event will occur and pass almost without interpretation in the space of just a few pages. There is something rather dreamlike about the whole tale and though this unevenness contributes to this intoxicating atmosphere its overall effectiveness was – like so much else here – rather mixed.
Unevenly crafted it may be, but there’s no denying The Rose Crossing rests on a fascinating central metaphor, that of the grafted rose – and though the work is fictional I believe it does draw on some legends of horticultural history. Though I didn’t fully enjoy this novel’s plot, its unnamed island setting successfully conjures a rich “brave new world” of passion, fertility and strangeness and this atmosphere, particularly its well-imagined clash of Western and Eastern cultural values, does outshine the other flaws of its sometimes stilted, sometimes rushed narrative pace. In conclusion, Jose’s literary methods often seem to mirror the concerns of his protagonist, a quest for innovation and a very conscious, calculated process of creation that occasionally falls flat and occasionally births transient moments of great beauty and originality. Worth a read, certainly, but perhaps one to borrow rather than buy. Oh, and one further caveat, if you are squeamish about bodily emissions this probably isn’t the book for you: urination not only comprises a central plot point but excretions are frequently described with a depth and relish that borders on the uncomfortable. As I said above, it’s hard to discuss this book for long without returning to the word “peculiar.”