Richard Yaxley - The Rose Leopard
Tragedy, when it touches a family, often changes them. Sometimes it is for the better and other times not, but it is difficult for the dynamic of a family to remain the same when a vital participant has suddenly vanished. Australian author Richard Yaxley's novel, The Rose Leopard, opens with a montage of establishing scenes that show a young, mostly happy family told from the viewpoint of Vince, the father, and then Vince's wife Kaz is cut by a rusty pair of shears, takes ill, and then dies. The section where Kaz is rushed to the hospital and dies is great writing, well-crafted, paced, and sensitive to both the emotions of the characters and the sudden terrifying deadness of Vince as he comes to grips with what has happened. These pages show Yaxley – and this is his debut – as a strong author. The opening montage, and the awful, awful remainder of the novel, however, do not. The Rose Leopard is over written, pretentious, and believes itself to be clever and witty when it is anything but.
Vince, the person, believes he is an intelligent man, a learned fellow, and is insufferable for it. Not just to the other characters – who rightly call him out for his behaviour – but also to the reader, who is forced to endure not just the banality of his 'jokes' and literary quotations (used entirely to show off his smarts, not to enhance the story or add anything resembling depth), but also the stupefying shallowness of his internal life. There's nothing there – but oh Vince, and Richard Yaxley, wishes there was! It's all sound (but no fury), and nothing is ever signified. Here is a character who believes himself to be among the cleverest of us all, relentlessly cynical, ironic, and rampantly sexual, but the narration stumbles and falls when Yaxley takes the unfortunate step of believing all the tripe he writes about his protagonist. It's not funny just because we are told it's funny. It's not sad just because we are told it's sad. And it's certainly not clever just because we are told, again and again, just how clever it all is. How many times must another character refer to Vince as strange, odd, quirky, unhinged, out of the ordinary, unbalanced, etc etc – when all the reader can see is a smug, self-satisfied author propelling a smug, self-satisfied character through a laughably immature story? To add injury to injury (for we passed the level of insult within fifteen or twenty pages), the novel concludes with a bizarre made-up story which is supposed to signify growth within the protagonist, and offer a neat round of symbolism to tie up all the feelings the characters share.
The theme of a character lacking awareness about themselves and others is one that has potential, but it is not used here. Instead, Vince perceives himself as more aware than others, his mind tuned to the ringing of how it all really is. He is a writer, a 'lover of words', which allows him, of course, the ability to judge all others through the use of smarmy quotations and ivory tower proclamations. He is the sort of fellow who tells the reader that, “Our two children are named Alex and Sara. I wanted to call them something more distinctive, like Milo and Otis, or Tom and Jerry”, and then persists with this tired joke by always calling his children Milo and Otis – until, of course, character development kicks in and we learn that Vince has grown up because he uses his children's names. It's all very hokey, and not as clever or funny as Vince and Yaxley would like.
Throughout all this there are family difficulties, of course. Kaz's mother is a strict upper-crust woman who detests her daughter's choice for a husband. Kaz's sister Frannie has her issues, too, and there are some secrets attached. Vince navigates these waters cheerfully though not well, for he is the sort of fellow who enjoys making splashes (it's funny to make others uncomfortable, see! It shows you are a writer!), and who really has nothing more to do with his day than denigrate the achievements and beliefs of others. He is unfair and unfriendly to his agent Stu who is, admittedly, something of a trend follower and not trend setter as he would like, but who also provides him his only outlet into the world, and is his only friend. And yet, all throughout, right up until the end, Vince is mean, nasty, petty and thoughtless to his friend – and for what? Why?
An example of the novel's emotional immaturity: Ordinarily, a fifteen year old girl discovering that her uncle is her father, that her actual father is of no blood relation to her, that her mother has lied to her for her whole life, and that her deceased aunt never knew – these are all large, life altering truths to learn. I shall quote at length the reaction of this girl:
“Time to plunge. I frown once, maybe twice, lean against a window-sill.
'You know how we're related,' I say to her.
She look away for a moment then nods again.
'Amelia, it's just...well, I'm not really your uncle.'
She barely hesitates.
'You're my Dad, aren't you?'
Still air, still life, an absence of everything. Then: 'You knew? How did you know?'
She shrugs, rolls over onto her back.
'The numbers didn't add up...Besides, I knew that old Leo could never be my Dad. Have you seen the photos? He was ancient even then!'”
And that is that. There is a bit more conversation about it before the chapter concludes, but it's all much the same. Vince could have been telling Amelia about the price of an egg, or his opinion of a new movie. There's no emotion, nothing – from either of them. It's an astounding example of the emotional immaturity of the characters. They either flare up and reveal deep dark truths (ho hum) and say words that can never be taken back (another ho hum), or they take huge, life-changing pieces of information, and – nothing.
After months of vacillating, which involves coming to realise that he is not, in fact, much of a writer or, in fact, much of a man, Vince creates the story of the Rose Leopard, supposedly the most beautiful creature in the world. It hardly seems worth going into the hastily constructed mythology of the Rose Leopard and the Keepers, and it is somewhat dispiriting to read of evil Swicks and Mother Stars and Eternals and the Bright Universe. The children – we are told – are enthralled, but the reader is not. A cute bed-time story may be exactly what these children need to deal with the death of their mother, but the heavy-handed symbolism of Vince's awakening as a 'story teller' and not a 'writer' is clunky and forced. For some odd reason the children enjoy the story (and, as the story expands, Kaz's sister, who is inexplicably attracted to it), which, unfortunately, leads Vince right back to where he started – he is a writer again! By inventing the word Swicks, he has shown himself as a true story-teller. Sadly, this is not used by Yaxley in an ironic or satirical manner – rather, we are expected to believe that Vince has grown and it was Swicks and Mother Stars that made it happen.
The Rose Leopard is a bad novel. The entirety of this blame lies on the narrator, Vince, who is a thoroughly unsympathetic fellow. He is smug and self-absorbed, and the only time it is possible to care about him at all is when his wife is dying. Then, Yaxley forgets about trying to be clever, forgets about trying to be funny, and simply writes to the heart of his character's thoughts and feelings. For all the negativity of this review, it is important to note, again, that there is a brief portion of the novel where Yaxley's talent is truly shown. While it is disappointing that there are only forty good pages mired within the muck of two hundred bad, it does show some hope that Yaxley may indeed write a better book in the future.
||The Rose Leopard