Edward Popple, a 17th-century rose expert, sets out on a voyage of discovery, joined unexpectedly by his stowaway daughter Ros, disguised as a boy. Simultaneously, in China, the secret heir to the Ming dynasty, Prince Taizao, also a keen rose fan, sets out by sea for Rome. Both parties end up shipwrecked on the same tropical island. New roses are bred from Chinese and English stock. The stowaway daughter and rose-hobbyist Ming-heir fall in love.
It sounds romantic enough, but the sexual thrust of the first half of the book is all about Popple trying to resist the temptation to have sex with his daughter, while in China the romantic interest consists of wondering whether the sulky and impotent Ming prince is going to manage to get it up at all. What finally turns him on, on the shipwreck island with Popple's daughter, is not the meeting of true minds, or the tropical moon reflected on inky waters, it is watching her pee, and subsequently having her do it on him.
You could call the plot many things, but cliched is not one of them, and the same goes for the style. Popple's garden was "in a bowl yet not a sink". The roses were "ready with a viscous exudation in the sutures of their stigmas". A man's head was "roundand shiny as a dried red date". Round and shiny? Squashed and wrinkly, surely? The lines around the Ming prince's guardian's mouth, "tensed and relaxed like the legs of a spider at the centre of its web" - the sort of image, original as it is, that leaves you trying to puzzle out the connection rather than imaginatively enlightened.
The description is at its least successful during the romantic passages. Ros emerges naked from the sea, "as if she were a huge shrimp". Her breasts "drooped like rare pigeons". When aroused "Her knees began to knock together , her thighs rippled". When
the Ming prince first fancies her, "goosepimples covered him from top to toe", and as for Ros, "When he looked at her, she had nearly wet herself".
Apart from the watersports, it feels rather like reading a fairy story or fantastical children's adventure: there is the same weirdness and mystery, the same glossing over of the unrealistic, and improbable practicalities. It seemed hard to believe, for example, that the buxom Ros could spend several weeks disguised as a boy among sailors in a steamy climate without one of them spotting the rare drooping pigeons on her front.
They aren't the easiest set of characters to engage with. Popple does well at holding himself back from the child abuse, but it is child abuse, and he is a charmless old misery. The prince is a mawk, Ros is cheerful, pleasant and well behaved - give or take the odd pervy indiscretion - but that is about the length and breadth of her. The most sympathetic character in the book by far is the Australian author pictured on the jacket, with his friendly good looks and cheery crinkly-eyed smile. I found myself wishing he had written about contemporary Australian life, instead of weird people pissing on each other on an island. But then, it might have come down to the same thing.Reuse content