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Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn

In Stephanie Parkyn’s new novel, we travel back to a time of abject poverty and glittering parties, lavish spending and exotic curiosities, to revolutionary France. The enigmatic Rose has known terror and dark nights on a dirty mattress, waiting for her death by guillotine as blood spills in the streets of Paris. She then comes to know privilege and luxury as the duenna at lavish and fabulous parties, and becomes the goddess of the newly declared Republic of France, the woman everyone wants to be. She comes to be known as Josephine, the wife of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who is destined to become Emperor and who will make her his Empress.

Rose is at first repulsed by the sullen soldier she marries. But marriage will give her security and a place for her to live with her beloved children, the only good fruits of her unhappy first marriage. In return she instructs Napolean in the bedroom, instils him with the confidence he will need to take up his destiny, and gives herself up to him publicly and privately. It is Napoleon who insists that she change her name. But as Rose’s affection for her husband grows, his wanes. The heir Napoleon longs for to cement his power does not appear. As Rose takes her place in the palace of Versailles, sleeping in the bed of the murdered queen Marie Antoinette, she feels the prison bars of her luxurious cage.

Rose’s escape is in the garden of beautiful and exotic plants she cultivates at her country house, Malmaison. In this garden Rose’s story entwines with that of Anne, a serving girl who falls in love with a botanist. And with that of Marthe – an older woman who desperately wants to be a mother. Parkyn unravels and reveals their hopes and fears alongside the vines, leaves and flowers in Rose’s garden. As the exotic plants grow and strive to flourish in new soils, each woman struggles to survive the inner and outer forces which threaten to entangle, strangle, and suffocate them.

Parkyn captures the emotional extremes of a turbulent time in history. Napoleon’s Josephine is a legendary figure, but here Parkyn gives her a voice and a story and creates a richly developed character. At the beginning her story seems very fragmented and it is hard to get a hold on her – we jump from one year in her life to the next, with memories of the years before scattered in. But partway through the book – perhaps when Rose begins to plant her garden – the character herself seems to take root and I found myself invested in what happened to her.

The theme of motherhood is explored. As the characters strive to become mothers, Rose and Anne in particular long for their own mothers – Rose’s mother faraway in Martinique, and Anne’s in the country. This longing is paralleled by their nostalgic remembrances of the plants of their childhood. For Rose, among these is the sweetly-scented jasmine she grows in her garden. For Anne, it is the herbs and flowers of a childhood spent running through the fields in the French countryside. Marthe is perhaps the outlier of the three. Denied love in marriage and children, loneliness threatens to change her forever. Watching these three women develop brings home with startling clarity how women in the eighteenth century were slave and subjects to their relationships with men. Not only in terms of their physical comfort, but emotionally as well. It is possible to see in Rose’s quest to grow her own garden from the spoils of the botanist’s overseas treasures, a desire for her own autonomy. Parkyn gives insight into a passionate and turbulent time in France’s history, but even more, this time in history comes alive through her creation of the feelings and responses of these vibrant, living, feeling and breathing women.

Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Allen and Unwin, RRP $32.99


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