Inspired by a glowing review on NPR and the gorgeous cover design, I snapped up The Dark Rose as quickly as I could. It’s a mild thriller-cum-literary novel that tangles with the questions of morality and guilt. If you intend to do harm but fail, are you guilty of the crime? If you intend to do good, but fall into the wrong side of the law, are you morally at fault? Yes and yes, according to Erin Kelly, an author who hands out death and disaster with a free hand; hers is a universe where even minor crimes don’t go unpunished, and the result is oddly satisfying (if a bit bleak). The story follows two central characters – Louisa and Paul – and three timelines: Louisa’s volatile relationship with rocker Adam Glasslake as an 18 year old in 1989 London, Paul’s troubled upbringing in a suburban slum under the wing of his illiterate best friend Daniel, and the present day, where the two characters meet and work together restoring a sixteenth-century garden in the British countryside. Louisa is immediately drawn to Paul, a doppelganger of her long gone lover Adam, and Paul – vulnerable in the aftermath of agreeing to testify against his best friend in a murder trial – is drawn to her as well. Each of them is flawed in interesting and unique ways, and they have coping methods and personalities that feel genuine as well as compelling.
Juggling multiple timelines is a feat successfully maneuvered by few authors, but Kelly does a respectable job matching the pacing and tone between her segments and blending them together the right way. Unfortunately, she’s much better at characterization than plotting, as her attempt isn’t without flaws: the present day story starts off running and only picks up speed, while the back stories start off slower and eventually grind to a crawl near the 2/3 mark. It’s frustrating to have to leave the exciting, sensual present to revisit teenaged Louisa and Paul flailing in 1989 and 2009, respectively, as they cope with circumstances and guilt that will haunt them going forward. That aside, the language in this book is splendid and the gardening subplot is a rich source of metaphor and a tidy frame for the story.
We are all guilty of something; this book is about what happens when that guilt catches up to you.