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Susan’s Bookshelves: Missing Rose by Linda Newbery

At quarter past two, on a Wednesday afternoon in the 1990s Anna’s eighteen year old sister disappears. Police are involved, enquiries are made and bodies are viewed which turn out to be other people’s tragedies. Nobody knows what has happened to Rose and the trail eventually goes cold.

Twenty years later Anna, now in her early thirties, is still haunted by the sister she looked up to so much and the agony of not knowing whether she is dead or alive. Rose was, we gradually realise, very different from Anna although both sisters are talented artists.

Now, there’s a wonderful moment – perhaps my favourite although it’s a hard choice – in The Marriage of Figaro when Figaro discovers his unlikely parentage. Mozart (and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte) then treat us to a sparky quartet in which each character in turn incredulously sings and points: “Sua madre?! Sua Padre?!” Ever since I first got to know lovely Figaro decades ago, I have called this the “sua madre, sua padre” moment and it’s astonishing how often parentage revelation occurs in fiction of all genres and periods. Missing Rose is no exception. All is not as it seems. Sua madre, sua padre.

Told in a series of carefully dated flashbacks Newbery’s narrative gradually reveals the story of Rose and Anna’s parents along with the experiences of Anna and Rose as teenagers. Thus it’s rather beautifully multi-faceted. We see, for example, Cassandra, their mother, who appears now to be succumbing to dementia but actually isn’t, from several perspectives at different times in her life. And I admire Newbery’s 1960s research. I was there and know that this is an accurate picture of how it was. My mother-in-law was a social worker with a case load of girls like Cassandra and her furious parents. Every one of us knew a girl like her too, despite the taboo which meant we weren’t supposed to talk about it.

I also liked this novel because it’s full of decent, likeable people such as Anna’s longsuffering boyfriend Martin and his ex-wife Ruth. Michael Sullivan, originally a science teacher at the school Anna and Ruth attend, but now something rather different is the sort of nice man we’d all like to have in our lives too.  Don, Anna’s father, is delightful too. Everyone is totally believable.

And of course, losing a child without trace or information, is every family’s worse nightmare but it happens. Newbery is very good at conveying the anguish and tension. It isn’t just Rose either. Cassandra’s talented brother Roland drowned (suicide?) as a troubled teenager – another thing which hangs over the family and is explored though Newbery’s flashbacks.

When I spoke to Linda Newbery recently she told me that this novel was originally titled Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternon (2014) but that a publisher merger led to the new title in 2016.  She dislikes the new title but I don’t agree. The cryptic ambiguity works perfectly in my view. Rose is missing. She is also being missed.

Anyway – a rose by any other name, as it were – it’s a compelling, thoughtful read. Add it to your TBR pile.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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