Review of Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

Tho’ I know Christina Rossetti as the author of the most moving Christmas carol I have ever heard sung, I’ve never read her poem Goblin Market. But after reading Roses & Rot, I know that I certainly must. But the “Night Market”–as it’s termed in the book—is just one attraction of an artists’ colony called Melete, located north of Boston—next to a bridge leading straight into fairy land. Every seven years the outstanding fellow is offered the opportunity to spend seven years “away with the fairies” (in that marvelous Celtic phrase) as a “tithe” to the Fae, with a virtual guarantee of artistic fame thereafter. If like me you’re fascinated by the thought of living in a world where the bounds between everyday reality & a realm of magick are tenuous & thin, you wiil hugeluy enjoy this book. Previously I’ve been entranced with seemingly “realistic” school stories with archetypal elements from fairyland such as Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls & that classic of the genre, Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. This time we have the real thing. Kat Howard subtly introduces the fairy elements with a matter of factness we believers expect. The first time that a befeathered & befanged party of riders suddenly appears, we think, Oh, that’s the Wild Hunt. Sure. And we know where we are now. The story requires lots of invention—an art colony run by the Fae seemed new to me—but we’re well within the tradition of fairy lore as found in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream & Celtic myth.

This is also a tale about relationships, featuring two sisters (like Goblin Market). Here Imogen, the elder sister, is a story writer, & Marin, her sister younger by two years, is a ballet dancer. They have a hideous mother who fits the role of wicked stepmother or witch, but she’s just their natural mother. Ostensibly everything she does is for the girls’ own good, providing Imogen especially in lessons in humility & self-control. But it was in this depiction of mother-daughter relationships that I found this story disappointingly improbable. We might think probability & realism scarcely matter in a world where your lover might sport a set of antlers when his “glamour” isn’t working to make him appear to be only a famous human dancer. Actually, it’s the opposite. The more fantastic-seeming the details, the more consistency & logic is required; as C. S. Lewis once noted, in myth an apple tree may bear golden apples, but never pears. As both sisters are grown & pursuing their careers, why would they continue to allow their mother to persecute them? Why don’t they block her verbally abusive & passive aggressive (“poisoned paper cuts”) emails & toss her “gift” packages in the trash unopened?

Perhaps fortunately, the abuse the sisters suffered in childhood is unlikely to be unnoticed in real life. Both sisters have permanent scars from their mother’s burning Imogen’s stories & Marin was taken to the hospital. Any ER nurse would have been highly suspicious when a child presents with such injuries—they are mandatory reporters, as are the girl’s teachers @ school as well—mother left Imogen’s burns untreated. It is also very unlikely that Imogen’s mother could have sabotaged Imogen’s award @ school for best story by accusing her daughter of plagiarizing it from her. Any teacher would know a good student’s work immediately. In real life, thank Heavens, a mother like this would long since have been spotted as a crank & a fantasist even if the girls weren’t taken into care. As if one cruel mother weren’t more than enough, @ Melete we meet Janet, mother of the unfortunate poet-fellow Helena, who is equally demanding, controlling & destructive. I’d hope in reality both mothers would long since found themselves in a psych hospital.

Of course terrible parents are a staple in fairy tales, but these are unremittingly & unnecessarily horrible & dragged the story down terribly, @ points making it almost unreadable. In contrast, the relationship between the sisters Imogen & Marin, tho’ conflicted, is beautiful & caring. I quite loved Marin’s affair with the dancer, tho’ personally I thought Imogen’s sculptor deserved a pass. (But then like C. S. Lewis I’m highly suspicious of metal trees!) So my verdict is five stars for the fairy stuff & probably four stars for the sisters & the artists’ colony, So if you are equipped with a spacious imagination & like to picture yourself just one path into the woods leading to a bridge over a river away from Haute Desert, you may love this book.

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