Marika Cobbold is good at the narrative hook - grabbing the reader by the throat on the opening page of a novel. ‘Drowning Rose’ begins with a telephone call. Eliza, just leaving the museum where she works as a ceramics restorer, is contacted by her godfather for the first time in 25 years. He wants reconciliation, and in the following chapters, the novel begins to unfold the tragedy that led to their estrangement and the corrosive guilt that has subsequently destroyed Eliza’s own life.
Readers of Marika Cobbold will recognise the heroine - fortyish, childless, prickly, damaged by childhood events. This time her name is Eliza, and she narrates her life in the first person, from an appropriately skewed viewpoint. Her antagonist, the bolshy Sandra/Cassandra relates the events of their shared past in another first person narrative, equally partisan. There are two unreliable narrators, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle for the reader to determine. This double stranded narrative is another of Marika Cobbold’s hallmarks and it’s expertly handled.
The revelation of character in a first person narrative is very difficult to do successfully, but Marika Cobbold accomplishes it without visible effort. Sandra/Cassandra seems, at the beginning, to be a rebellious teenager, unlikeable but worthy of the reader’s sympathy, but she gradually reveals herself as the chilling orchestrator of catastrophe. She has been given a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s boarding school, where she is unable to fit in - always conscious of her working-class background among the daughters of the rich. Eliza, Rose and their friend Portia appear to her as ‘princesses’, gifted with beauty, money, and the confidence that privilege brings. Sandra becomes their ‘hanger-on’ and the girls try to treat her kindly, but soon grow tired of her. From admiration to jealousy and hatred is only a short step. ‘You seem to think it’s all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it,’ Sandra tells them bitterly. When she and Rose fall in love with the same boy, it soon becomes clear that there are no limits to what Sandra will do to get what she wants.
But it’s Sandra who gives us a clear picture of the 16 year old Eliza, caring, artistic, with all her life spread in front of her like a gift. She has natural style, wearing battered hats and second-hand clothes and a tacky necklace, so successfully ‘somehow you ended up wanting one just like it’. Eliza is the only ‘princess’ who is habitually good to Sandra and pleads her cause with the others.
‘”Cassandra is a very clever girl,” Eliza said.
I wondered if she was taking the piss but she didn’t look as if she was. She had the kind of face that showed everything she was thinking and right now she seemed to be thinking nice things. Her smile was friendly and her eyes were kind.’
The picture that Sandra draws provides a tragic contrast to the present day Eliza, still punishing herself for events that the reader begins to realise were not her fault at all.
On the negative side, the novelist seems to be exploring ground already covered in some of her previous books, though lovers of Marika Cobbold will not object. I also found this novel’s central device perhaps a little too obvious. The fragile, damaged Eliza, is a restorer of fragile, damaged ceramics. She loves her work because mending porcelain ‘makes me happy to think that instead of that thought and effort being thrown away and lost I can bring it back to usefulness’. There is a parallel between the repair of the broken object and the repairing of Eliza’s self-esteem. She believes she is a realist; others call her self-defeatist - as her godfather tells her, ‘sometimes the two are one and the same’. But afterwards I wondered whether I was wrong and the device is psychologically right - after all, what jobs do people like Eliza take?
There are some very skilled novelists writing in the UK at the moment and Marika Cobbold is high up on the list. She doesn’t set my hair alight, but she doesn’t disappoint in the Good Read stakes either. Personally I like the kind of hybrid novel that she writes - literary fiction with elements of mystery and romance. I enjoy the undertow of a strong narrative, and an awareness of language and psychology. You know you’re in safe hands, and she always manages that difficult trick - the ending that is neither too unbelievably happy, nor too downbeat to cheer the reader. What she leaves you with is hope and an open door for your imagination to walk through.
*This review first appeared on Book Munch on May 15th. Book Munch is a good site to find something different and exciting to read - it's definitely not the front window of Waterstones!