A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery

luminous | ethereal | elegant

what it says on the cover …

From the best-selling author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog comes a story about a woman’s journey to discover the father she never knew and a love she never thought possible.  

Rose has just turned forty when she gets a call from a lawyer asking her to come to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged father’s will. And so for the first time in her life she finds herself in Japan, where Paul, her father’s assistant, is waiting to greet her.  

As Paul guides Rose along a mysterious itinerary designed by her deceased father, her bitterness and anger are soothed by the stones and the trees in the Zen gardens they move through. During their walks, Rose encounters acquaintances of her father—including a potter and poet, an old lady friend, his housekeeper and chauffeur—whose interactions help her to slowly begin to accept a part of herself that she has never before acknowledged.  

As the reading of the will gets closer, Rose’s father finally, posthumously, opens his heart to his daughter, offering her a poignant understanding of his love and a way to accept all she has lost.

PUBLISHED: 23rd September 2021 (in the UK)
SHELF: Literary Fiction | Romance
AUTHOR: Muriel Barbery
TRANSLATOR: Alison Anderson
UK PUBLISHER: Gallic Books (in the UK)
FORMATS: Paperback | Kindle

Thank you to @EuropaEditions for kindly sending me an advance-proof paperback copy of #ASingleRose by #MurielBarbery
(note: this novel is published in the UK by @BelgraviaB)

my review

It feels like an awfully long time ago now – certainly before I’d embarked on my blog – when I first came across a book in the Waterstones nextdoor to my office intriguingly titled The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  I snapped it up and read the blurb – Parisian setting, eccentric characters, atmospheric – no brainer, it was coming home with me!  It was every bit as quirky and distinctive as its title promised, I fell head over heels, and so began my fascination with Muriel Barbery’s writing. Barbery is a French storyteller of exquisite evocation. Writing in her native language, we have her go-to translator, Alison Anderson, to thank for the beautiful transcription of her tales into English.

So when I heard news of a new novel on Book Twitter I got in touch with the lovely team at Europa Editions to see if they might have a spare proof copy to make this devoted fan a very happy book blogger indeed.  When an uncorrected copy of A Single Rose arrived on my door mat shortly afterwards I emitting a little squeak of elation! So to Sarah Russo and the team at Europa; a million, happy thank yous.

A Single Rose is very different from The Elegance of the Hedgehog in terms of its setting – Kyōto – its characters – less eccentric, but nonetheless extraordinarily enigmatic – and its length – at just 148 pages (bearing in mind my copy wasn’t the finished article) it’s less than half the length of ‘Hedgehog’.  Its whole demeanour sets it apart; where The Elegance of the Hedgehog was unmistakably Parisian in provenance, attitude and voice, A Single Rose envelopes the reader with an ancient and mysterious energy. And yet both books bear the sibling intimacy of quietly emotive lyrical prose, powerful visual imagery, and a profoundly deep-rooted cultural affinity.

The story is a flood of sensations from the very start of the first chapter.  It was slightly disorienting, but I felt it was a clever mimicry of what Rose is experiencing, waking from a deep, jet-lagged sleep thousands of miles from home, following the death of her estranged father.  With kaleidoscopic radiance, each chapter unfurls a feast of immersive scenes, alive with landscapes and waterways, temples and gardens, tea and sake, yakitori and sushi, customs and kimonos, and an evolving tribute of flora symbolic both of Rose’s profession as a botanist, and her late father’s sentiments. Not content with just writing these captivating chapters though, the author prefaces each and every one of them with a short, cultural allegory that’s pertinent to the part of the story you’re about to share in.  

Rose is an awkward character; belligerent, stubborn, churlish, and seemingly determined to put others’ backs up. She favours impermanence and yet she craves affection. But as reflects on the loss of her mother, her grandmother, and then just a few years later, the death of the father she never knew, it would take a very flinty heart not to yield to her overwrought and fractious moods.  Even if when she infuriated me, my reaction was tempered by my empathy with the intensity of her grief, and her feelings of coming unmoored, of belonging to no-one. Under the respectful, watchful kindness of her father’s assistant, Paul, and the patient and unconditional daily ministrations of her father’s housekeeper, Sayoko, Rose gradually softens and allows herself to get close to others, allows the readers to get close to her, and begins to accept herself for who she is … to even start liking herself.  The influence of the people around her, and the restorative magic of the country, is a joy to follow … if it could be bottled and prescribed it would be priceless.

There are many striking contrasts throughout the book that seem emblematic of Kyōto’s ancient modernity; the stark city and the softly dappled country; the peaceful temples and the neon-noise of the arcades; the quiet acceptance and forgiveness of the Japanese people versus Roses’s embittered rage; the grey urban sprawl punctuated by the bright and fragile colours of its native flowers.  When you read A Single Rose I’m sure many more will catch your attention.

A Single Rose is a deeply sensory novel, elegant in its tone, ethereal and luminous in its prose. It feels feminine, but that’s not to say this in exclusive in any way, it’s just the aura, the impression it gives me. To try and put into words the effect this book had on me has been quite tricky, and I know this is a novel that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but time seemed to liquify when I read it; I’d feel as if I’d been so deeply absorbed in the story to have taken root along with all the flora and fauna that play such an elemental and formative role in the plot, but when I looked up I’d only been reading for an hour or so.  It was the oddest and most enjoyable sensation.  The themes of loss and grief are heartfelt, whilst the ever-present motifs for hope, love, and spiritual awakening make this a positive, gently moral and perfectly soul-soothing tale.  

bookshop.org | waterstones.com | amazon.co.uk

author bio

photo from europaeditions.com

Muriel Barbery is a French novelist and professor of philosophy. Her published works include the New York Times bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa, 2008), Gourmet Rhapsody (Europa, 2009), The Life of Elves (Europa, 2016), and A Strange Country(Europa, 2020). She has lived in Kyoto, Amsterdam, and Paris, and now lives in the French countryside. 

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