In Kat Howard’s lush, strange story Roses and Rot two young women — sisters — are accepted into a highly coveted residency for artists. Extremely difficult to get into, Melete is a dream come true for anyone wanting to reach peak success in their respective artistic field. Once they’re in, they’re taken care of, mentored however they may like, and primed for success when they leave.
Imogen and her sister Marin have both been accepted into this coveted programme: Imogen as a writer and Marin as a ballet dancer. The sisters were close as children, but spent some years estranged from each other when Imogen left home as soon as she could, leaving Marin alone with their cruel, overbearing and straight-up abusive mother. As the quieter, more introspective child, Imogen dealt with the worst of their mother’s abuses, and later, with the guilt of leaving her younger sister and running away. She imagines that the little girls in the fairy tales she read were better off with stepmothers than she was with her birth mother: “I couldn’t imagine it, growing up. How a stepmother could be worse than my real mother, than this woman who was supposed to love me, and who so clearly did not. I envied the girls in the fairy tales, sent by stepmothers to sleep in the ashes, or in the barn with the beasts. The girls who ran. Smart girls, brave girls. Girls who escaped. Girls who saw what they wanted their fate to be, and clawed for it. I couldn’t imagine being that brave, not with a mother in the house. I made myself small and quiet, not even a whisper in the corner, and still she saw me.” Now, at Melete, the sisters are attempting to repair their relationship and become close again, filling in the cracks and forming deeper bonds than they have had in years.
The novel Roses and Rot has its share of strange creatures, and questions that are not so strange
The story is told from Imogen’s perspective as she attempts to understand what is happening at Melete, and more importantly, what is happening with her sister. Marin soon appears to be the star of Melete, and is also soon caught up in a relationship with her mentor, who is hiding many things about himself, as well as about Imogen’s love interest. But what does being the most talented artist in this place of blurring lines and boundaries mean for any of them? Is Marin’s success guaranteed? If so, then at what cost? Who is her mentor and what does he want from her?
The programme at Melete itself is everything the young women could have hoped for, but there’s something strange happening around them in this perfect fairy tale-like place of wonder and beauty that is filled with so many talented individuals, each contending for what appears to be the highest accolade awarded to one resident each session. Every person at Melete is brimming with potential, ripe with artistic ability, and with an ego that is often ready for battle, be they dancers or poets or singer-songwriters, but more strained than the tension between the residents is the odd, moody atmosphere of the place, as if there is something not quite right, not quite real. Imogen sees people who shouldn’t exist, finds herself caught up in parades and parties and events with people who appear and vanish as if they slipped through time and space from elsewhere.
“The lights grew brighter. There were people among the deep green of the trees. They reached out, beckoning as we rode by, and I realised: what stood in the forest, what cried out and called as we passed, was beautiful, was strange, was not human. They were made of the same otherness, eerie and compelling, as the masked and costumed riders, but in this light it was clear they weren’t masked and costumed at all. These were their true shapes, nglamoured. Bones at sharpened angles, pressing closer beneath the skin. Eyes without irises. Feathers for hair and teeth fanged as serpents. From all of them a sense of longing, of desire made heavy, of want with hands and claws, that nearly knocked me from the back of my horse. If I had fallen, I would have stayed.” — Excerpt from the book
It’s no major spoiler here to reveal that the lines are blurred between the real world and that of the Fae. Howard has said in interviews that she was inspired to write this story by the Scottish legend of Tam Lin, in which a young man is taken away from the mortal world by the queen of fairies and must be rescued by a human who loves him. In Roses and Rot, Howard plays with a version of this myth, but with deftly disguised fantastical elements — for the most part. The Fae are elusive and so is their world — to Imogen and so to the reader, too. But these are not the pretty fairies of silly stories for children; these are powerful, mysterious creatures who are selfish and care little for the lives of humans. Beautiful, but terrible too, with “eyes like the darkness and bones too sharp. Horns that spiralled from brows and hair made of feathers, made of flowers, made of butterfly wings. Skin scaled like a serpent’s. Still beautiful, even when they weren’t. The Fae drew the eye until looking away was the pain of heartbreak, a pool of loss.”
This could be a story about a tithe paid to the fairies, as Tam Lin was. What is this tithe, what are the fairies? This could just as easily be a story about what you have to give up, sacrifice, change and fight in order to be successful, in order to hone your creativity and skills, in order to achieve the greatest laurels an artist can. What would you give up for heart’s deepest desire? What would you save?
Roses and Rot is also a story about sisterhood, bad parenting and childhood trauma. Imogen and Marin’s relationship is at once close and tense, with both women attempting to navigate a great many complicated emotions as a result of the abuse they suffered at their mother’s hands. Howard’s prose is lush, even when writing of terrible things, and her take on the Tam Lin legend is contemporary and astute. Creative artists have always given up a little of their souls for their art, and many may well have considered giving up more in order to reach a larger audience and global success. With Roses and Rot, Howard asks where an artist would draw the line, and how much is too much to sacrifice.
The reviewer is book critic and editor. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.
Roses & Rot
By Kat Howard
Saga Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2016