Rose Boys, by Peter Rose Text Classics $12.95
The Text Classic series is a wonderful initiative to reprint forgotten Australian literary masterpieces or highlight narratives that may have been published more recently but deserve a fresher scrutiny. Text has already reprinted novels such as Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and CJ Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.
Peter Rose’s Rose Boys was originally published to great acclaim in 2001. Ostensibly the memoir of his late brother Robert, Rose Boys won the 2003 National Biography Award and became a best-seller. It is not hard to see why.
For readers not from Australia, let me preface my review with a few words about AFL (not to be confused with American Football). Throughout the country, but especially in Melbourne, where I live, “footy” isn’t just a sport, it’s a religion. On Grand Final Day in September, the country comes to a virtual standstill. Every office runs its own sweepstake and the pubs are awash with punters predicting, reflecting, commiserating and jubilating.
Peter Rose was born into one of the greatest of sporting families in the state of Victoria. Both his grand-father and father were players and then coaches at the iconic Collingwood Football Club, one of the earliest clubs to be established in Australia and home to many footy heroes. The “Magpies” are known for their black and white sporting colours and courage on the field. Kicking a ball around the back yard with their Dad was one of Peter and Robert’s earliest memories.
Peter grew up to be bookish and literary-minded. After University, he became a bookseller and then worked for years in publishing, both at Oxford University Press in Melbourne, and now as editor of The Australian Book Review. He is also a poet and his last collection of poetry, Crimson Crop, won the 2012 Queensland Literary Award.
In complete contrast, Robert was a fine sportsman, both a footballer and a cricketer. He not only played for Collingwood but opened the batting for the Victorian state cricket team. Supremely talented, extrovert, handsome, recently married with a young daughter, Robert had the world on a string. But on Valentine’s Day 1974, a senseless, devastating car accident left him a quadriplegic. He would never walk again and spent the next 25 years of his life in a wheelchair until his death in 2000.
Peter Rose’s account of his brother’s life is immensely affecting. He writes simply and unsentimentally about the superhuman difficulties Robert faced. These were not only physical, but psychological. For any quadriplegic, the mental readjustment required to face a life of virtual immobility is extreme. But for a sportsman, this is almost overwhelming. Robert battled painful bedsores and lung infections, as well as boredom and depression. The extended family suffered, too. There was grief for everything Robert had lost but also insidious feelings of guilt. Rose’s portrait of Robert’s endurance and courage are recorded, as is the family’s despair and forbearance. But there’s also anger and fear, and loneliness. Robert wasn’t a saint and the family had a roller-coaster ride battling both his and their fluctuating emotions over a long period of time.
Rose intersperses his narrative with snapshots of happier times, the brothers’ childhood, his parents’ courtship, the rise of the Rose sporting legend. Rose also reflects on his own life, his burgeoning literary career, his acceptance of his own homosexuality and individual path. His prose is restrained and as such, immensely evocative. I finished the book absolutely captivated and deeply saddened. The last 25 pages are especially distressing to read, as Rose gives us a blow-by-blow account of the final hours of Robert’s life, the futility and agony of his days in hospital, the eventual, blessed, release and the bureaucratic bungles that threatened to postpone his carefully choreographed funeral. Rose also includes his haunting poem I Recognise My Brother in a Dream, a tortured tangle of nightmare and beatific vision that sums up both Robert’s indomitable spirit and the unbroken love of brother to brother.
It is a memoir that captivates and involves the reader. With Peter Rose as our guide, we see Robert live again and get to know him. As Rose writes: “It is time to listen to my brother whose message, laconic but self-evident to many in his life, I somehow never fully heeded…I turn to the handsome lad, the vaunted youth, the rage recruit, and will him to speak to me.”
Read it: For an honest, warm and uplifting account of family life in almost unbelievable adversity.