A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery

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Translated by Alison Anderson

Review by Annabel

We’re delighted to be featured in the blog tour for Muriel Barbery’s new novel today – do see the other stops on the poster below.

Muriel Barbery burst onto the literature scene with her 2006 novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which followed events in the lives of a Parisian concierge Renée, a widow who has hidden depths, and of a precocious twelve-year-old philosopher Paloma. I loved it. Renée had previously appeared in a 2000 novella, The Gourmet.  There was a gap of ten years before her next novel, The Life of Elves, (reviewed here), which was very different. A dark fairytale (with elves) for adults with two super young heroines, we had to wait another five years for the promised sequel, A Strange Country, which, rather than clarifying the story, went sideways into the mist and confused things more. What links all her work is its base in the world of philosophy, the subject she studied and has taught. In A Strange Country, you could tell her mind was turning towards Japan, as tea ceremonies and Japanese characters grace the chapter titles.

Her new novel, at 140 pages it is really a novella, has a philosophical slant once more, but is a contemporary tale set in Japan, specifically Kyoto where Barbery lived for a couple of years. A Single Rose is a beautiful thing, a simple story of self-discovery.

Rose never knew her father. Her French mother had a fling with a Japanese man and Rose was the result. Now, forty years later, she has been made an orphan and has come to Kyoto for the reading of his will.

She is looked after at her late father’s house by Sayako and spends the first day or two getting her bearings, a little aided by Kanto, the driver. Both Sayako and Kanto are unobtrusive and totally devoted to looking after her needs. Kanto is touring her around the city, and they stop at a viewpoint. Rose, who is a botanist, pauses at a bridge to look at a garden and bumps into an Englishwoman.

‘Is this your first trip to Kyoto?’
‘It’s my first trip to Japan.’
‘Japan is a country where people suffer a great deal, but they don’t seem to mind,’ said the Englishwoman. ‘In return for this indifference to misfortune, they have these gardens where the gods come for tea.’
Rose found this irritating.
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Nothing can make up for suffering.’
‘Oh, really?’ asked the Englishwoman.
Life is painful,’ said Rose. ‘You can’t expect any good to come from that.’
The Englishwoman looked away, lost in contemplation of the pavilion.
‘If a person is not ready to suffer,’ she said, ‘they are not ready to live.’
She stepped back from the tailing and gave Rose a smile.
‘Enjoy your stay,’ she said.

Kanto doesn’t like the Englishwoman, characterising her as a ‘kami’, or bad spirit. Rose will meet Beth several more times during her stay and will find she’s not bad at all, just her own woman.

A couple of days into her stay, Rose will meet Paul, a Belgian man who worked for Haru for twenty years. Paul is around the same age as Rose, widowed with a daughter. Paul will accompany her over the next few days when he can on a tour of Kyoto’s temples, which Haru wanted her to see.

Another day, another temple – but it’s more complex than that. Each chapter represents one of the visits effectively, and each begins with a short scene from Japanese myth, legend or history. Each chapter is also associated with one flower, from peonies and carnations to azaleas, and eventually, you’ve guessed it, roses. Each temple has its own style and focus on different aspects of Buddhism.

As they visit and talk, Rose learns about her father, about the Japanese art and culture that he loved and dealt in. She also starts to warm towards Paul, whom at first, she is a little irritated by, but by the time he must go elsewhere for a meeting, she is missing him, a feeling that she has never experienced before. Instead, she meets up with Beth, who as a friend and business rival of Haru’s knows a different side of him, and Paul.

It was lovely to read of Rose’s gradual awakening, all the strong emotions that she’d supressed over the years surfacing and showing her that she was truly alive.

There’s more to the story than flower and temples though. Barbery introduces us to some classic Japanese cuisine, from street food to matcha tea, and sake of course. There is a lovely and funny scene where Rose and Paul meet with some of Haru’s friends including a maker of beautiful pots, Keisuke, who is always drunk – but takes to Rose.

She finally finds the way to crack Paul’s seriousness too when he arrives early one day to take her to a temple before it gets busy. There’s a zen garden of raked sand…

‘Ryōan-ji doesn’t inspire you?’ he asked.
‘It looks like a giant cat litter tray.’
He burst out laughing and, for a split second, was transformed. That’s the old Paul, she thought, the Paul that was killed by his wife’s death.

While reading A Single Rose, I was reminded of two other novels in which women visit Japan: Naoise Dolan’s superbly witty comedy Exciting Times, and Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, both of which feature young European women going to Japan to work. Barbery’s book doesn’t have the bite or work aspect of either of those, although it is witty and clever.

Reading A Single Rose is a sensory experience; you can almost smell the aroma of the blooms in the temples on its pages. I also found it a very calming, beautiful book to read and the ending was perfect.

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Annabel is one of the founders and an editor of Shiny New Books.

Muriel Barbery, A Single Rose (Gallic Books, 2021). 978-1913547110, 144pp., paperback original.

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  1. I absolutely adored this book, and right now, it is my favorite of 2021!

      1. Lovely is an understatement!

      2. This looks wonderful, definitely one I’ll consider adding to my shelves!

  2. Although I did very much like Hedgehog, it took a second reading for me to get there (there WAS a lot of philosophy to absorb). As a result, I’ve been somewhat undecided about this one, largely because I thought it might be both too sentimental and too philosophical. Your review, however, has pushed me over into “Yes — it gets a spot on the TBR!”

  3. Wasn’t Naoise Dolan’s book about Hong Kong rather than Japan – although to be fair, there wasn’t a very strong sense of place other than ‘somewhere oriental’?
    Despite your praise for this one, I am always somewhat nervous about reading books by Westerners about Japan, will they be too full of clichés?

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