Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2023

The Rose Leopard (2003), by Richard Yaxley

The Rose Leopard is a debut novel that’s now two decades old. The author, secondary school teacher Richard Yaxley, has gone on to have a distinguished literary career, receiving an OAM (Order of Australia) in 2011 for services to education, literature and performing arts. He writes across genres, and has won or been nominated for many awards, mainly in YA and Children’s Lit.  The following is a list of his novels from his website:

  • Harmony (Scholastic 2021; Long-listed for the ARA Historical Prize – CYA Section)
  • A New Kind of Everything (Scholastic 2020)
  • The Happiness Quest (Scholastic 2018; CBCA Notable Book for Older Readers 2019)
  • This Is My Song (Scholastic 2017; ACU Book Of The Year 2019; Winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Literature; Finalist in the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards; also published in the Czech Republic by Albatros Media)
  • Joyous and Moonbeam (Scholastic 2013; Finalist in the 2014 West Australian Premier’s Awards for Young Adult Literature)
  • Spring Rain (Self-published 2011)
  • Drink the Air (Strictly Literary: Winner of the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction)
  • Bloodlines (Strictly Literary 2009)
  • The Rose Leopard (University of Queensland Press 2003)

In other genres, he was also

  • Winner of the 2016 FAW NSW Walter Stone Award for Life Writing for Homecoming
  • Joint winner of the 2004 Queensland Theatre Company Expressions Play-script Competition for Heart.

That’s an impressive list of credits, but I didn’t know about any of them when I read The Rose Leopard. It looks as if it might be Yaxley’s only adult novel though he has so many books listed at Goodreads I could well be wrong about that.  The Rose Leopard is definitely not YA, there’s lots of lusty sex in it, though it isn’t overdone. Plus, it deals with some weighty themes.  This is the blurb:

Vince isn’t perfect, but his love for Kaz reveals the best of him. Their coastal farm is an idyllic place to raise their two children, and Kaz ensures that life is easy and full of fun. Here, Vince can indulge both his passions – for words and for his wife. But when an unexpected event shatters their contentment, Vince isn’t ready for the responsibilities he must face. In creating the fable of the Rose Leopard – the most beautiful creature in the world – he tries to explain to his children a universe that doesn’t always make sense. The Rose Leopard is a compelling debut novel, a poignant and often funny tale of love, grief and the transformative power of story-telling.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that this is a novel about a father coming to terms with the grief that overwhelms him when his beloved wife suddenly dies.  Narrated by the grieving husband, the first chapters memorialise the wife in glowing terms.  Though the marriage is later revealed to have had its ‘moments’, for most of the novel Kat has no flaws, and Vince’s self-abasement is overt. Their exchanges, however, bring them alive as a couple and, written in a wry style, are often amusing. But reading these first few chapters in the awareness that she is soon to die, adds to the tension.

Vince’s betrayals are soon revealed, and though they are commonplace they stain his memories with guilt and remorse.  In the meantime his small children, Alex and Sara a.k.a. Milo and Otis, are dealing with the loss of their mother without the support of their father.  We often read that grief is a personal experience and that there are no timelines or ‘approved’ ways of coping with it.  But Vince’s grief crosses over into self-indulgence when he causes a scene at the burial, refuses to visit her grave with the children, neglects their physical and emotional needs and doesn’t even get them back to school for some kind of relief from his self-absorption and irrational outbursts of anger.

Amelia, Vince’s very mature 15 year-old niece, is the one who restores some sense of normality.  She’s a bit idealised in the narrative, though it’s hard to say whether that’s a debut author’s inexperience or whether it’s consistent with the characterisation of Vince whose judgement is clouded.  She comes to stay because she doesn’t get on with her mother Francesca, and that suits Vince because he doesn’t get on with Francesca either, for reasons which are revealed as the novel progresses.  Amelia is a painter, though how she gets time to paint anything when she’s taken on the complexities of a maternal role will be a mystery to anyone who’s had the full-time care of two young children…

Along with the theme of grief impacting on others too young to understand, The Rose Leopard is also a tale of sibling rivalry, and the spiteful lengths to which a jealous sister will go.  Yaxley then shows the mother’s dilemma in trying to resolve the complications that arise between Kat and Francesca, and how ultimately truth will out.

The novel also tackles the challenge of explaining death to children when a parent has no religious belief. In discussion with Amelia, Vince tells her…

‘I don’t believe in any Heaven or Hell or any sort of Purgatorial waiting-room because that’s Christian and I reckon Christianity is narrative humbug.’

‘Humbug?’

‘Another word for crap.’

‘Oh.’

‘I don’t believe in any of the Eastern stuff, like passing from this life to the next, or being reincarnated as a fruit-bat or something.  I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits seeking redemption.  I think that’s all the same: it’s all fictional blarney and it’s made of lot of writers and film-makers richer than they deserve to be,  See, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.’ (pp.160-1)

But after the raw experience of seeing his wife die, he does believe that there is something besides a body, something more than just physically living.  He doesn’t like the word ‘soul’ but this whatever-it-is can be felt if not touched and is always around somewhere circling like a bird looking for a good branch.

Much to the dismay of his good mate and literary agent Big Stu, Vince hasn’t touched his writing since Kaz died, but this conversation with Amelia triggers his realisation that story-telling offers balm to his wounded psyche:

‘It’s like … like a story, I suppose — and everyone has a story, don’t they?  I mean,  everyone has a batch of stories and that’s what we are, I think — a batch of stories.  Our bodies crumple and disintegrate but our stories remain and … well, hopefully they’ll live on forever because they’re our legacy, I guess — they’re what makes it all worthwhile, don’t you think?  The stories are what really matter? (p.161)

It is story-telling that enables Vince to heal and to restore his bruised relationship with his children.

The Rose Leopard is an impressive debut which deserves more attention than it appears to have had.  But it looks as if the author has taken the advice of Big Stu who says that nobody wants to read pretentious writing — and has abandoned (Big Stu’s idea of) literary fiction in favour of writing that tells a story.

Author: Richard Yaxley
Title: The Rose Leopard
Design by Kate Barry
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2003
ISBN: 9780702233463, pbk., 249 pages
Source: Personal copy

Availability: The Rose Leopard was published in paperback two decades ago but you can still buy it as an eBook from Amazon.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    An interesting resolution- perhaps not an easy read- more challenging however,

    Like

    • It’s complicated when you know someone in this situation. There’s a delicate balance between ministering to the bereft children’s needs and looking after oneself. It’s not easy to get it right.

      Like

  2. I hadn’t heard of this one. It sounds rather good. I think the issue of guilt after the death of a spouse is an interesting topic.

    Like

    • A lot depends on the relationship. It’s tricky when the relationship is rocky, for example, with parents, and maybe harder with a spouse.

      Like

  3. “that’s what we are, I think — a batch of stories.” I like it, and the idea that those stories will continue and be our legacy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Yaxley.

    Like

  4. Interesting that having had such a strong start with adult fiction he has focused more on children/YA.

    Like

    • Yes, though not really surprising. For two reasons: firstly that there’s something about teaching that makes you want to take up the pen and write the stories they want to hear, and secondly, it’s very difficult to make a financially successful career out of literary fiction. YA and children’s sells much better; many authors opt for writing crime, which sells well too.
      I wrote myself when I was teaching. I have an unpublished ‘science’ picture book that is about different kinds of talking rocks, and an unfinished junior novel, a kind of literary SF: a sort of ET before ever there was a movie. Plus a published NF book about Indonesia, and a series of books for teaching Indonesian. The latter four were commercially successful.
      Then I gave up on that, starting writing histories (still unfinished) and short stories (some of which got published) and I have an unfinished novel which hasn’t been touched for years because I’m too busy writing book reviews!

      Like


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