Rose Girl

Written by Holly Payne
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1256, a woman gives birth in a monastery deep in the Rila mountains. Ivan, a young friar, is the only witness. Roses do not grow in the area, so Ivan is puzzled when their aroma pervades the air after the child’s birth. The mother gifts him a small bag of rose hips taken from the rosa damascene, and before leaving, instructs him to name the girl Damascena and to plant the rosehip seeds and replant cuttings from the adult plants.

Payne takes us on a journey with Damascena through her child and teen years, as she is visited by the mystic, Shams, in the spirit-shape of an old man. Shams teaches her how to grow and propagate the roses, performing an otherworldly dance to ensure they thrive. Damascena’s tale is a long and winding one. Taken for dead after a fire, she falls under the care of Rumi, who heals her life-threatening burns. Rumi welcomes the rose girl as his last companion before he departs this life, enabling him to reconcile himself with the long-ago loss of Shams, and to begin writing again.

Rose Girl reads like a fairytale, with supernatural themes, but grounded in the unsolved disappearance of Shams of Tabriz, muse of the prolific 13th-century poet and mystic, Jalal al-din Mevlana Rumi, named Rumi in the novel. Payne has extrapolated from a legendary mystery of a girl who, surrounded by an army of Mongol soldiers, continued to pray with a fervency which deeply affected the young Rumi for the rest of his life. This is a beautifully told story about the power of faith; the Sufi journey to God through prayer; and the ancient ritualistic sema dance, infused into Damascena’s search for her mother.