30th Apr 2012
Drowning Rose by Marika Cobbold
It’s a book that handles a serious subject – that of the corrosive nature of guilt – with a refreshingly light touch, making it a much more pleasurable read than it might have been.
When 41-year-old Eliza gets a phonecall from her elderly godfather, Ian, her world tilts sharply. They haven’t spoken for 25 years, since the eponymous Rose drowned at their exclusive boarding school.
Ian blamed Eliza for his daughter’s death, and the loss of her best friend transformed Eliza from a bright, outgoing and talented schoolgirl into a withdrawn woman who turned down a place at art school.
Having survived years of her self-destructive tendencies, perhaps despite her best efforts, she is a successful ceramics restorer at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but the phone call takes her back and she can’t believe he wants to see her after so long.
When she gets to his house in the countryside around Gothenburg, the two of them set about rebuilding their relationship, before it’s too late.
Alternating with Eliza’s narrative is that of Sandra/Cassandra. Joining Eliza and Rose’s boarding school in the sixth form on an assisted place, she tells the other girls that she is known as Cassandra, thinking that ‘Sandra’ sounds too drab for the posh school.
Through her narrative, she makes it clear that she despises Rose and Portia, the athletic blond who completes Eliza’s trio. Referring to the three girls as ‘the princesses’, Sandra’s tale shows an Eliza who is virtually unrecognisable from the narrator of the rest of the novel.
She is devoted to Rose, and is imbued with the same sense of entitlement as her two friends. She occasionally offers Sandra some friendship, but when this is thoughtlessly, although not maliciously withdrawn, it affects Sandra in a deep and ultimately tragic way.
Cassandra’s narrative is compelling because we can all recognise something of our school experience in it – if not the privileged school itself, then the way that girls can be, for lack of a better word, mean.
She is an unreliable narrator, but she doesn’t hold back when it comes to events which reflect badly on her. This has something to do with her reason for telling her story, but also shows how she is a little deluded when it comes to how her fellow pupils see her.
The grown-up Eliza is brilliantly written. Fragile and with a black sense of humour, she spends her time mending ceramics as a way to make up for her lack of control in the rest of her life.
Her way of putting things back together, or making sure that they don’t suffer further damage, is an obvious, but never overwrought, contrast to the fractured nature of her life, which, until the phone call from her godfather, she didn’t care enough to mend.
Her relationship with her needy and passive-aggressive step-sister, Ruth, demonstrates how much she feels as if she has to make amends, but her blossoming friendships with her neighbours (the nosy Archie is a delight) show that she might be able to finally start fitting the pieces of her life back together.
This may have been the first book by Cobbold that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last – I’ve already got Frozen Music earmarked as the next.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants a blackly comic and elegantly-written story of guilt, attention-seeking and self-destructive behaviour. Also, anyone who loves a good story about how bitchy girls can be, especially to other girls.