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Book review: Love and death in the war of the roses

The Rose Grower by Michelle de Kretser Chatto pounds 10
The Rose Grower is a meditative tale of unrequited love and changing identity set against a backdrop of the first five years of the French Revolution as it progresses from scattered disturbance to the storming of the Bastille and full-scale totalitarian regime. In focusing her attention on one particular family of impoverished aristocratic stock, the Saint- Pierres of Montsignac, Gascony, Michelle de Kretser shows an acute understanding of the way in which the nobility viewed the sudden but systematic eradication of their entire privileged existence with a mixture of naive complacency and disbelief. As the obnoxious Hubert assures his wife Claire: "None of this will last, you'll see. There'll be war in a couple of months, the Austrians won't keep dragging their feet." The ambiguous political status of the Saint-Pierre family also allows de Kretser to explore the developing factionalism within its ranks and within those of its associates: Stephen, the louche, self-regarding American artist, who falls out of a hot-air balloon and into the adulterous arms of Claire, Saint-Pierre's eldest daughter; or Joseph Morel, the working-class doctor whose loyalty to the Patriots is undermined by his knowledge of their deep-seated corruption, and by his sympathy for the aristocratic families struggling to adjust to their newly degraded status. De Kretser's skill is in charting the course of idealism gone sour: the closing of churches; mass executions and massacres of those accused of "crimes against the nation"; bureaucratic complicity and a climate of fear in which it becomes treasonable to speak one's mind. In short, egalite ou la mort at any price.

De Kretser's writing is by turns poetic, metaphorical and delicately elliptical, capable of evoking a mood or a change in direction in the subtlest of ways. During his trial, Saint-Pierre finds a spider crouching "like a beauty spot" on the face of a bust by the door - "evidence of human fallibility". Morel's encounter with his beloved Sophie, the eponymous rose grower and the plain middle child of the Saint-Pierre family, is indicated obliquely: "The scent poured into his room, someone went clattering down the stairs, there was a button missing from his shirt." Roses recur as a trope of desire, both sensually and creatively; as an expression of that individual consciousness prohibited by loyalty to the Revolutionary movement. In nurturing her private obsession - to cultivate a truly crimson variety of rose (unknown in 18th-century Europe) - Sophie recognises the symbolic value of her task: roses are "like people ... liable to disconcert you, rarely running true to type". Sophie rejects the stultifying role ascribed to her by the Movement, and embraces instead a life of "accident and casual opportunity", which feeds into the novel's fateful outcome.

This is a richly-textured first novel by Sri Lankan-born de Kretser, whose deceptively simple narrative structure belies a complex interweaving of competing voices, and a sensitive understanding of the ideological conflicts at the heart of any war.