‘Five Roses’ by Alice Zorn

Book Reviews

517pshxln2lReviewed by Lynne Carol Martin

Alice Zorn’s beautiful second novel Five Roses feels like a love letter to Montreal’s Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood. Her portrayal of the gentrification of this formerly working class area mirrors the subtle shifts toward a hopeful future for her four women characters—Rose, Fara, Maddy, and Yushi—each recovering from devastating loss.

The book begins in 1978 when a woman named Thérèse kidnaps a baby girl from a Pointe-St-Charles hippie commune, whom she names Rose (after the Five Roses sign), and takes the baby to her cabin in the woods about an hour north of the city. This setting takes on a fairy tale quality, complete with a big bad wolf, whom we first meet as a benign neighbour. His true nature isn’t clear until much later, when Rose’s opaque story as an adult slowly unfolds through her tentative, clumsy interactions with the people who befriend her when she moves to the city.

Throughout the novel, Rose’s underlying narrative feels like a mix of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, though the details are uniquely her own. She is the princess locked away by an overprotective witch, or the little girl eaten by the wolf, or the budding young woman pricked into unconsciousness on the cusp of discovering her sexual power. Zorn’s embedding of these fairy tale echoes is reminiscent of American writer and folklorist Jane Yolen’s fiction. Like Sleeping Beauty, eventually Rose wakes up and emerges to interact with the real world, learning haltingly how to trust people.

After recounting Rose’s early childhood, the book jumps forward to 2005 to set up the rest of the complicated interweaving of the stories of the four main characters. It begins with Fara and her partner Frédéric shopping for their first house. We learn that Fara’s sister committed suicide years before and the house they eventually purchase was for sale because the owner’s son had committed suicide in it. This forces Fara to confront her own buried feelings about her sister’s death. But she keeps a tight lid on her emotions while at work as a unit coordinator at a hospital. This is where she meets Rose, who also works at the hospital, having moved to the city after Thérèse’s death.

The story becomes further entwined when it happens that Fara’s house is next door to a hippie commune where a woman named Maddy has lived for some time. Maddy works at a bakery with Yushi, who is Rose’s roommate, and has lived at the commune since her daughter was kidnapped 27 years earlier, hoping one day she will seek out her birth mother.

These coincidences seem too neat and suggest obvious outcomes, but Zorn doesn’t let them resolve the way the reader expects. One pleasure of reading Five Roses comes from its dramatic irony—the story’s slow internal revelation is like those mystery novels in which the omniscient reader gradually realizes “whodunit” but keeps reading to find out whether and how the characters will discover who the reader already knows.

Zorn’s prose transports readers to Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood, so that without having been there one could likely find their way around these streets and recognize where these women live and work. (The men here are secondary, but mostly loving and eventually also transformed). Integral to the reading experience is the map of the neighbourhood the publisher provided in the review copy. It is a nice gesture to the reader and lends a travel guide quality to the book. Thus, laid easily alongside the text, the map shows the eventual coming together of these women in sight of the iconic “Farine Five Roses” sign, which rises above the neighbourhood like a cryptic instruction as well as benediction.

Early on, Rose goes back to the cabin to retrieve her mother’s loom, sets it up again in an abandoned factory, and begins to craft a new life for herself as her art draws new people to her. Constructed like one of Rose’s intricate weavings, the novel switches back and forth among the main three women, with Yushi’s story threaded throughout. Fara slowly comes to terms with her sister’s death as she learns from Maddy the details of the boy’s death in her new house. (Zorn herself lost her sister to suicide, so her writing about Fara’s experience feels deeply authentic). Maddy, too, feeling the pain of losing her child begins to heal by treating Yushi as her daughter.

Yushi has lost something dear as well—her career and self-confidence as a pastry chef—and her regaining of both becomes one of the final plot catalysts pushing the other three women into decisions that move them beyond their grief. Hence, these women not only reconstruct their own lives, but they also each become an essential ingredient (like Five Roses flour) baked together into a new community in which they change one another for the better. Each small step forward feeds them, and they feed one another, literally and figuratively.

Though Yushi provides the bridge for Maddy to get reacquainted with Rose, the story is deliciously unfinished by the end of the book. Expanding on this might spoil the suspense, but I hope for a sequel in order to continue inhabiting this world full of colour, motion, and deep, quiet compassion. Through Zorn’s vivid writing, one can taste the pastries and hear, see, and smell the neighbourhood even while observing the growth in the lives of these ordinary, yet remarkable women.

Dundurn Press | 320 pages | $24.99 | paper | ISBN 978-1459734241

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Lynne Carol Martin

When she’s not writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays, Lynne Carol Martin tutors at Red River College and teaches English for Business and IT Professionals at the University of Winnipeg. She also runs a business called Clear Voice Enterprises, helping students and professionals hone their communication skills. Her monologue Good Enough was performed at Sarasvàti’s International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues in March 2016.