Drowning Rose (2011) is the seventh of Marika Cobbold’s novels, though I confess I had never heard of her until I picked this one up. Apparently her first novel, Guppies for Tea (1993), attracted a lot of favourable attention, and she’s been quietly writing away ever since. At first I thought this was chick-lit that had got a bit older, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s really fair.
The main narrator of the story is Eliza, now in her early forties. She works as a ceramics restorer for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and though she loves her job, repairing ceramics doesn’t help her repair her life. She has never recovered from the guilt she feels for not saving her friend Rose, who drowned in an accident in their final year at school. This has blighted her emotional life; witness her failed marriage. Then out of the blue, she is contacted by Rose’s father, who is also her godfather. He has not spoken to her since Rose’s death, as he too blames her for it. Now he wants her to come and visit him in Sweden where he lives. What does he want with her? There is also a secondary narrator, Sandra, who likes to be called Cassandra; her story is about the time when she was at school with Eliza and Rose.
This is not a story where very much happens; small domestic and workplace incidents, and Eliza’s visits to her aging godfather, make up most of the content. This is not in itself a problem; the emphasis is on emotions and feelings, particularly the grief and guilt Eliza still feels about Rose’s death. Is this taking proper responsibility for something she has done, or is it deliberately – if unconsciously – self-limiting what she might achieve in her life? (This makes an interesting contrast to the non-fiction book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, by Helen Garner, which I reviewed recently, in which in real life, Anu Singh killed her boyfriend, but didn’t accept responsibility for her actions.) The contrast between the disintegration of Eliza’s life and the work she does repairing ceramics is rather obvious, but the ceramics themselves are interesting (though not as interesting as those in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book), and the Scandinavian fairy stories resonate with events in the story. Why involve Sweden? It is where Cobbold was born.
But I’m less happy with the second narrative. Cassandra’s story shows her as a selfish outsider, desperate to join Eliza and Rose’s group of friends – the princesses, as she calls them. Though this isn’t a structural problem, I was sorry that Cobbold made Cassandra a scholarship girl ashamed of her lower-class roots. There are other forms of envy than class envy. And I don’t think the two stories really fit together as a whole. There is some suspense involved in their coming together in the present, though it’s not that hard to guess the outcome. Cassandra’s story deliberately contrasts Eliza and Rose as young women when life is ‘all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it’– ‘a wide golden road to a glittering future’ – with Rose dead and Eliza as she is now: ‘a life of ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’. But I find the two versions of her hard to reconcile.
For me, this book is rescued by the black humour that characterises Eliza’s voice. Cobbold says that ‘My way of dealing with most things, although obviously there are exceptions, is to make a joke’, and this is what she does with Eliza. ‘I can do perverse thinking,’ she says. And she also does flippant: ‘The call [from her godfather] shouldn’t have upset you like this.’ ‘I know. But try telling that to the call.’ Her step sister, Ruth, ‘was watching me the way a laid-back bird might watch a worm making its painstaking way to the surface of the soil. Now she said, ‘I haven’t upset you have I?’ I gave her a newscaster’s smile. ‘Of course you haven’t.’ Next thing I knew she was crying. I stared at her. ‘All right, you have. I am upset. There, you can stop crying now.’ Ruth looked up at me with tear-blurred eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’ There’s a lot of this sort of stuff – cross purpose jokes, non-sequiturs and slightly off key observations. It’s probably what I miss in Cassandra’s version of Eliza.
I think this book belongs in the category of ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘challenging’. This is perhaps why I initially thought of it as chick-lit – which addresses issues of modern womanhood humorously and light-heartedly – though in this case for forty-somethings, not twenty-somethings. But Eliza’s grief and guilt, some of her thoughts about old age, and her acerbic voice perhaps lift it beyond the merely light-hearted.
You can read more about Marika Cobbold here.