Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson. My thanks to Isabelle at Gallic Books for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my review copy.
About the Book
Rose has turned 40, but has barely begun to live. When the Japanese father she never knew dies and she finds herself an orphan, she leaves France for Kyoto to hear the reading of his will.
In the days before Haru’s last wishes are revealed, Rose is led around the city of temples by his former assistant, Paul. Initially a reluctant tourist, Rose gradually comes to discover her father’s legacy through the itinerary he set for her, finding gifts greater than she had ever imagined.
Format: Paperback (144 pages) Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: 23rd September 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literature in Translation
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From the start of the book the reader, like Rose, is immersed in the culture of Japan: its food, its customs and traditions, even its weather. Each chapter of the book is preceded by a Japanese folk tale or legend which subtly, often obliquely, informs the content of the chapter that follows. There are trees and flowers everywhere – carnations, peonies, magnolia, azaleas – often in hues of red. You would expect their presence to excite Rose’s interest, being a botanist by profession, but her reaction is more ambivalent. She is seemingly unmoved by their beauty but drawn to their shapes and symbolism. This is reflected in the story of Issa, a famous Japanese poet, who, when asked why he only visited a plum orchard famed for its blossom when the trees were bare replied, ‘I have waited a long time in a state of deprivation; now the plum blossom is inside me’.
To some extent this also describes Rose’s mood when she arrives in Kyoto for the reading of her father’s will; the father she never met. She is full of repressed anger towards her father. ‘What can he give me now?’ she asked. ‘What can absence and death give me? Money? An apology? Lacquered tables?’ Much of her angst is experienced by Paul, her father’s assistant, charged with accompanying Rose on an intinerary compiled by her father shortly before his death. Poor Paul, who has known loss of his own, puts up with this out of loyalty to Rose’s father. For a long time, Rose actively resists being drawn to any aspect of her father’s life, resenting rather than appreciating the evidence that emerges of his interest in her life, even if from afar. Gradually she starts to soften as she absorbs the atmosphere of the temples and gardens she and Paul visit. The sake helps a little too and soon self-deprecating humour replaces her previous abrasive and petulant nature.
Muriel Barbery’s writing has an etheral, almost dreamlike quality, carefully preserved in Alison Anderson’s translation. I especially liked the evocative descriptions of the temples and gardens Rose visits, the landscape in and around Kyoto, and the weather. Waking up to heavy rain one morning, Rose observes ‘The mountains of the East steamed with mist rising into a diaphonous sky; the river was silenced by the downpour.’ On another morning, the view from her window is of mountain slopes ‘bathed in thick mist that rose in successive exhalations towards a transparent sky’.
By the end of her stay, Rose finds she has become a different person, able to put past disappointments behind her and look to a future that offers so much more than she might have imagined.
A Single Rose is the sort of book you need to linger over, much as you might a cup of fragrant Japanese tea, gradually taking in and appreciating its delicate, subtle features.
In three words: Profound, lyrical, sensuous
About the Author
Muriel Barbery is the author of four previous novels, including the IMPAC-shortlisted multimillion-copy bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She has lived in Kyoto, Amsterdam and Paris, and now lives in the French countryside. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)
About the Translator
Alison Anderson is an author and the translator of around 100 books from French, including Muriel Barbery’s previous novels and works by Amélie Nothomb and J. M. G. Le Clézio.