The Shattered Vase – ‘Drowning Rose’ by Marika Cobbold

‘Drowning Rose’ is a quiet understated novel. The story, though not without conflict, is rarely dramatic. The characters are unremarkable, but well-drawn. The novel’s conclusion is gentle, but lingers after reading. This is not a novel that will blow you away, but it should leave you with admiration for Marika Cobbold’s writing and her accurate perception of the vagaries of life.

The novel is written as a split narrative (a conventional and unremarkable device). Eliza’s tale is contemporary. She has been damaged by a tragic event from her school days (the clue as to what this might be is in the title). She has a failed marriage behind her, has no direction and a history of self harm. She is forever looking backwards, with little interest in what the future might bring. In what is a rather overblown metaphor, she mends broken pots for a living.  At the start of the novel she is contacted by her godfather (and also Rose’s father) Ian. Ian is dying and wants to mend broken bridges.

The other narrative follows Sandra/Cassandra, a young girl desperate to fit into her boarding school. This narrative is curiously timeless, but must be twenty-five years or so earlier than Eliza’s narrative strand, because Sandra’s fellow boarders are Eliza, Rose and Portia; three beautiful ‘princesses’.  There is also a irritating third strand, which barely features, but is necessary to allow the two main threads to come together.  This feels like a ‘fix’, rather than seamless storytelling.

The novel’s weakness is its plot.  Very little unexpected happens, and the story never pulled me along.  In short, it’s unremarkable. There are also a couple of points were the narrative feels forced to make the story work. Considering the weak plot, this is unsatisfactory.   What makes ‘Drowning Rose’ worth reading is it characters.  Each and every one of them is beautifully crafted, and believable.

Eliza is a near-perfect encapsulation of a life stalled by tragedy.  Her foibles and idiosyncrasies are well-realised.  She is irritating, compassionate and has a deliciously dry wit, which makes her story great to read.  Sandra is a girl on the verge of womanhood, and again, Cobbold describes her insecurities very well.  The ensemble cast is similarly well-rounded.  The girls at school are thoughtless and fickle; a clique of bullies that exists in every school environment.  Eliza’s irritating step-sister brings light-relief, as does an elderly neighbour.

‘Drowning Rose’ never thrilled me, but thanks to its strong cast of characters, its conclusion packed a greater emotional punch than I expected.  It reminded me in turn of Amanda Craig and Rose Tremain.  I think I would probably read both of these authors in preference to ‘Drowning Rose’, but if you have read and enjoyed them, you will find much to like here too.

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