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Black Rose

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Success Stories

by Resa Rowland


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ISBN 1 933037 40 7
Heliographica, 2004
220pp, paperback
Retail price $15.95

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

One of the few drawbacks of easy self-publishing is that it encourages the first-time writer to publish before they are ready. I know; I’ve been guilty of this myself. When I saw the striking cover of Black Rose, I was optimistic that the contents of the novel would be equally remarkable, but in the end it did not fulfil its promise.

The first thing that puzzled me was the subtitle: Excerpts from a Journal. It seemed reasonable to expect the book to be written in diary form. This was not the case, and it was some time before the journal kept by Alexis, the heroine of the novel, put in an appearance. When it did, its significance was not obvious. Why did Resa Rowland choose this subtitle? Was it, perhaps, an oblique reference to her own writing journal, or did she use something from her own life in thinking up this ingenious, but busy, plot? We’ll come to that.

She certainly tries hard. Her efforts to avoid the cliché result in a narrative that appears to have been written with spell-checker in one hand and thesaurus in the other. The result is a style that never sounds quite natural, with the dialogue being the worst offender. Things don’t happen in this book; they "transpire". People don’t live in a town; they "reside" in it. Events don’t seem odd; they "appear" that way. "Royce’s reputation was one of a bastardly note," Alexis tells her friend, Constance, "but his patients professed another story altogether."

Alexis's husband, Dr Royce Ruccini, is behaving strangely. So are his family. So are Constance, and Alexis's other acquaintance, Carmon. Come to think of it, Alexis herself isn't exactly acting normally. Presented with the evidence of someone trying to terrorise her in her own home, she doesn't think of moving out of the isolated ranch, and it's rather surprising that someone so rich doesn't have any domestic help around the place. Then there’s the mysterious Monte Blackhawk, whose role in the action remains obscure. For the owner of the newest business in town, he seems to spend an awful lot of time offering tea and sympathy to complete strangers. Where are all the customers? Meanwhile, a mystery woman with a lingering scent is carrying out a campaign of fear against the Ruccinis. Is she someone from Royce’s past?

There are two kinds of successful story: up-front fantasies and believable human stories. This novel is said to be based on real life events. However, I think that the word "based" is meant loosely, much as it is often used by the authors of film scripts. Presumably, Resa Rowland has used her personal experience (as all the best authors do) in developing the theme of the novel rather than modelling the characters or situations exactly on familiar ones. The result is reminiscent of those US soap operas where one member of the family is having breakfast in a bikini by the swimming pool while conversing with another who is wearing a fur coat and standing in a force ten gale.

I’ve had a lot of practice at guessing the outcome of whodunnits, but this one kept me guessing until the plot was well advanced. That has to be a good thing. Yet I felt it would have been better to drop the literary pretensions and concentrate on giving this complex story a more immediate impact. Whilst admiring the author’s determination, I found it hard to relate to her characters or become absorbed in the narrative. The denseness of the style was a hindrance. Mixed metaphors and mixed tenses are employed liberally to throw the reader off balance. Take the following example:

"Not one ounce of communication from headquarters, so the show must go on. Deceiving good people was the Achilles’ heel to this chosen profession. But, at least, the end results usually panned out. Undercover work was just that, undercover."

Passages like this break the golden rule of fiction: they do not help to move the action along, and frequently they only serve to confuse. We don’t need to know what this particular character feels about his work.

Dr Ruccini’s web of deceit quickly begins to unravel, but not as quickly as it might, given what we already know about him. The "bouncing POV" – where the point of view of the narrative switches randomly from one character to another – is seldom an effective device. It seems to be used here in order that the reader will be in possession of additional information that the central character doesn’t have. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is an exciting enough story to justify that approach.


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