When you speak of a novel as haunting and original, it is not often that you can also say that it is spare, disciplined, and well-crafted. Richard Scrimger's second novel, Mystical Rose (Doubleday Canada, 234 pages, $29.95 cloth, ISBN: 038525949) combines all these qualities. A prolific author, Scrimger has won awards for his children's writing, as well as considerable praise for his first novel Crosstown which portrays the tragedy of a physician whose life tumbles into dereliction.
Mystical Rose is narrated by Rose Rolyoke, an eighty-seven-year-old suffering from dementia. As she approaches death she recounts the story of her life to a divine, silent presence she believes is at her bedside. She dwells on a handful of events: her father's death in a hunting accident; her period of domestic service with the Rolyoke family; her marriage to her employers' son Robbie; the birth of their daughter, Harriet, and her effort and failure, as an adult, to become a lawyer; Robbie's death after being dragged by an automobile; her own flower shop; the medical examinations leading up to her placement in a nursing home; and finally her respiratory failure during an evacuation of the building she was in.
Rose speaks in fragments, confuses names, words, and events, and does not distinguish the distant past from her present. Rose, the unreliable narrator, nonetheless holds the silent, unanswering "God" to account for the suffering she has witnessed in the world. Towards the end of her account, she seems less concerned with her own survival in an after-life than with entrusting to God her memories, the dreams and innocent longings of her younger self.
A narrative addressed to God could easily lose its way amid piety and earnestness. Yet one of the strengths of this book is its crisp humour. A geriatrician asks Rose, "What should you do if while in the movies you were the first to see smoke and fire?" She replies that it depends "On whether it's a tragedy or a comedy." The novel, as a whole, conveys extraordinary compassion for a character one would think is beyond the range of any novel; Scrimger's subtly poignant touch brings us close to a woman who, despite her failing memory, describes herself as "Used to being poor, used to disappointment, but able to recall hope." ò