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Mystical Rose

by Richard Scrimger

Rose Rolyoke, the protagonist of Richard Scrimger’s new novel Mystical Rose, stands in the heady company of Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley and Carol Shields’ Daisy Goodwill. They’re all aging Canadian women looking back at the events of their lives, not with anger but with some puzzlement, struggling to find an organized, meaningful narrative.

That Scrimger, best known for his essays and children’s books (though he was shortlisted for the City of Toronto Book Award for his first novel Crosstown), would choose to evoke Shields and Laurence seems at first more folly than artistic bravery. That he succeeds so admirably is testimony to his considerable strengths as a writer.

That success is not at all clear at the outset of Mystical Rose – the situations and characters are too familiar. We’ve seen it all before: the medical examination of the aging protagonist; the devoted but frustrated adult child (Rose’s daughter Harriet); the narrator addressing an unnamed listener and hinting at secrets and memories stirred by the onset of dying. Yet just when it all seems too rote, almost banal, Scrimger’s lean, vivid prose sweeps the reader away.

Mystical Rose is a one-sitting book (albeit a lengthy sitting). Rose’s story, a potential cliché in other hands, unfolds with such delicate measure, such intuitive ease, that it casts a spell the reader will be reluctant to break. The lucid, vivid memories are threaded with fragmented contemporary confusion, as Alzheimer’s exerts an ever-greater control over Rose. This is not, it turns out, the book of a mere imitator – Scrimger exerts such confident control over his material that any memories of The Stone Angel or The Stone Diaries eventually vanish. The life of Rose Rolyoke becomes a world unto itself, a world into which the reader is privileged to be invited. Mystical Rose is a book of true beauty and grace, delicately balanced and nuanced.