Reaching Rose by S M Johnson bills itself as a ‘spiritual thriller’. The story unfolds mostly through the eyes of Nicole, a working scientist and committed atheist. The Rose of the title is Rose Wilson, a seven-year-old girl, who when we first meet her is delighting in creating snow angels in pristine, newly-fallen snow in the front yard of her family home. Rose’s parents are dedicated, fundamentalist Christians of the most rigid sort. When Rose loses her mother in a violent rape-attack, the little girl withdraws emotionally. When a new, mysterious neighbour moves in down the street, she is the catalyst for involving Nicole in the mystery of Rose’s legacy and what amounts to an occult re-writing of history.
Nicole as a character vibrates with the life of a scientist. The detail of her academic research is convincing and interesting in and of itself. The life of a research scientist is drawn well, while being a tad light on the politicking that must come with the territory. Nicole is pulled in several directions as a scientist — she is well-established in Ohio, but she gets a wonderful offer to go to a prestigious university in California. This nicely creates the outer tension that is mirrored within her interior life — she wasn’t born an atheist, but found that position to be the most comfortable, whilst warding off all sorts of manipulative forces in the developing years of any young, thinking woman.
Muirin, the new, mysterious neighbour, thrills Nicole on first meeting, with the obvious exotic, international lifestyle she has lived. But then she disappoints Nicole when she announces that she will be going to church on Sunday — Rose’s church no less. The unfolding riddle of what exactly Muirin turns out to be is deliciously teased out throughout the book. The research behind Muirin’s story and her purported powers would place this book in the medical thriller section, a kind of science-fictional next year scientific break-through, except that the author keeps the focus firmly on the characters, and thus although it has a thriller aspect, the spiritual side of the drama is never neglected.
Rose, despite being the title character, is pretty much the plot-device to bring out the author’s preoccupation with the psychodrama of spiritual development. The little girl is sympathetically drawn, but the story is about Nicole’s movement from being a firm, almost fundamentalist atheist, to someone who recognizes that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.
The author draws the reader in. The mystery is well evoked, and there is an expectation each time one turns the page. S M Johnson appears to have been writing for many years, and this is evident from the riches she brings to the story. I look forward to reading more this author.
[T J O’Hare is the author of Amnesiak: Blood Divinity (Spero Publishing).]