Last weekend I tried to implement a ‘Writing and Study Free Weekend’ and ended up reading Roses and Rot by Kat Howard from e-cover to e-cover.
What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of? Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.
The book is structured around the tale of Tam Lin with a touch of Thomas the Rhymer. The original story revolves around the rescue of Tam Lin by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies. Here, the tale is retold and traditional roles changed so instead of a loved up couple it’s about sisters. Instead of a wicked step mother, there is an abusive mother who is tremendously well crafted.
I started writing as an escape, as an act of defiance. If I hadn’t had a childhood that had driven me so far into stories, that might never have happened. But I liked who I had become, and I was proud of my writing. Take away one thing, and maybe I don’t get the other.
There are three major themes that play out; fairy tales, family and art. To my reading the main theme is the latter. There are deep thoughts about art woven into the narrative and with the characters staying at an artists retreat its easy to explore the ups and downs and the layers of insecurities and ambitions that artists suffer from. There were times when it felt like a conversation with friends who are artists, the complaints were so familiar. There are things in this book, phrases and other tense moments, that non-artists won’t fully appreciate. It’s a fairy tale for artists with multiple levels of sacrifice and soul searching.
The faeries demand the best artist from the school as a tithe for seven years, after which they will be granted their hearts desire. In most cases its the success of their art and its longevity, the difference in being good and great. There is a manic factor to artists ambitions and it’s illustrated with an uncanny accuracy. I know I won’t be the only writer who feels a little uneasy and awkward when Imogen’s thoughts and desires are reflected in their own. It’s a story that asks boldly – what wouldn’t you do to be a successful artist?
The story also explores how abusive situations can drive a person to art in order to feel in control or to have a voice. Howard’s accuracy in this particular subject is like a scalpel blade to scar tissue. There is even the familiar ‘someone always has it worse’ game that the abused run over in their mind:
You always tell yourself that there’s someone who has it worse, and if you lived through the abuse, there almost certainly was. There’s a horrible sort of comfort in reassuring yourself in that fashion—maybe you were hungry some nights, but you had food. Maybe you got slapped, but at least you didn’t get beaten. Maybe you got beaten, but at least you never had broken bones. You think of the worst thing that happened to you, and then you think of something even worse than that. If you survived, you always can, and so by pained, contorted logic, what happened to you wasn’t really that bad. Maybe your mother tried to break you, to tell you that you were nothing, that you’d never matter, that you were a waste of her time, but she never succeeded. Maybe you still have scars, but those marks on your skin mean you’ve lived long enough to heal.
Pain and art goes hand in hand and as a tithe its the emotion that Faerie feeds off…the greater the pain or emotion the better it is.
Maybe you lived, once, a life full of secrets. Ones you could never tell, not because you didn’t know the words, but because you had learned, time and time again, that the words didn’t matter. People would rather believe a pretty lie than an ugly truth, and you were always the one who wasn’t believed. So you learned the power in silence, and in secrets. Maybe you still look over your shoulder, but at least you got away. And after all, if you’d had a childhood that was different, one that didn’t always feel like walking on knives, maybe you would never have found your voice. If you hadn’t been forced to swallow your words, you would have never learned the power in speaking them. This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.
Creating art has a way of cutting you deep even as it heals you. Like magic it always has a price.
My only criticism of the work is I would’ve liked to see more of Faerie..not because it’s necessary but because I’m fascinated how every writer describes it differently.
A thought provoking beautiful book and highly recommended to anyone who needs and artistic brush with the fae. Be careful what you wish for.