Rose/House by Arkady Martine
As I’ve noted multiple times, I often struggle with the betwixt and between nature of the novella. But Arkady Martine’s newest, Rose/House hit the sweet spot for me with its unique mash-up of a classic clinical locked-room murder mystery and a lyrical fever dream exploration of art and identity and narrative all held within just the right size container. I was variously enthralled, amused, and bemused and pretty much loved this richly layered story start to finish with just a few blips here and there.
It has a, cough cough, killer opening:
Basit Deniau’s greatest architectural triumph is the house he died in. Rose House lies in the Mojave Desert, near China Lake, curled like the petals of a gypsum crystal in the shadow of a dune, all hardened glass and stucco walls curving and curving, turning in on themselves . . . Deniau was not the first person to die there. Now he is also not the last.
Deniau’s houses were haunted to begin with. All of them: but Rose House was the last-built and the best. An otherwise place.
Plot-wise, the murder is spotlighted immediately. Not Deniau, who died there of cancer, but someone else whose death followed Deniau’s by roughly a year’s time. As for the haunting, the mysterious corpse could be considered one ghost. But so could Deniau, who had his body compressed into a diamond upon his death and placed on a plinth inside his home. Another haunting presence is the house itself: not an “embedded AI”, which in this world is “a common thing,” but rather “A house that is an artificial intelligence, infused in every load-bearing beam and fine marble tile with a thinking creature that is not human . . . Something else altogether.”
Beyond introducing the precipitating plot point and a taste of the lyricism that infuses parts of the novella, the opening also hints at the recursive nature of the narrative and highlights the duality it often plays with: the House is in a desert near a lake, it’s described as a flower (“petal”) but one of rock (“gypsum crystal”), the desert is baked in sun, but the House lies in shadow, it’s filled with transparent glass but the gaze is inward. I’m already in love.
Rose House’s AI is who (what?) notifies the China Lake police, in the form of Detective Maritza Smith, that there is a dead body inside the home. A fact unusual not only for the death, but because by order of Deniau’s will, Rose House has been sealed and guarded by the AI since his diamond was placed there. Only one person is allowed inside to view his archives and speak with the AI (and that only once per year for seven days only) — Dr. Selene Gisil, his former student who later denounced his architecture and its underlying philosophy and now thinks of her former mentor as her “monster.” Despite her fierce resentment of him and her anger at being drawn back into his orbit by being named his archivist, Gisil had visited Rose House a month prior to the murder, but fled the House’s ghosts after only three days.
Maritza contacts Selene, who would of course be the prime suspect, and after immediately clearing her of the murder (Selene was in Turkey), asks her assistance in getting into Rose House. Selene agrees, flies over, and the two of them convince the AI to let Maritza in. While they investigate the seemingly impossible murder inside the House (including the possibility the murderer is still there), Maritza ’s partner Oliver Torres, who thinks she’s insane to enter Rose House, investigates from the outside, getting entangled with various individuals who may or may not be who they say they are.
As noted, one aspect of the novella is the murder mystery itself, a classic locked room with a dead body inside a place nobody save Selene is supposed to be able to get into or out of (that last part is what so concern Torres) and a setting people with the usual suspects: the cop, worried about declining justice, who works off-hours to solve a case, the more prosaic cop who thinks there are better ways to spend one’s time, the civilian who seemingly gets roped in but may or may not have more to do with the case than seems apparent, etc. I’m not going to say much else about this element because, you know, “mystery.” I will say Martine does a nice job of seeing the story with all the necessary breadcrumbs and also creates a wonderfully creepy vibe in the house itself via setting description, situational context, and especially through dialogue with Rose House. The exterior segments involving Torres are I’d say less successful plot-wise but offer some needed comic relief and also serve to broaden the scope beyond the claustrophobic House.
The worldbuilding is concisely, deftly handled, with quick aside references — all quite natural to in-story events — to autonomous cars, AIs as so common they have regulations as to what they’re supposed to do and not do (such as notify authorities of a death in their vicinity), water shortages so bad people are carjacked for water, and others. The characterization is similarly sharp and concise and effective for all four main characters (I include Rose House in that quartet).
So far all so good. But my favorite aspects of Rose/House are the style and themes. I’ve already mentioned the poetic nature of some (not all) of Rose/House, which is filled with wonderfully crafted lines, though I won’t extend this review by quoting them at length, though I certainly could. But Martine’s writing chops, which are evident as well in her other novels, are not just impressive in their flights of lyricism but in the way Martine shifts style for purpose or based on situation. For instance, the way Maritza and Selene convince Rose House to let the detective in is to convince the AI (who is a willing participant in this bit of linguistic legerdemain) Maritza is “not a person … [but] the China Lake Precinct … The summation of the authority of local law and not any one person individually enacting it.” What then happens as the story progresses is that Maritza (and thus the author behind her) has to modulate her speech and tone so as to appear coolly non-human (or at least not individual) in a nice display of tight stylistic control.
Finally, for such a slim book the novella is chock full of fascinating thematic and imagistic patterns: the relationship between mentor and mentee, the importance of language and how we use it to categorize and separate, what it means to be a “person,” the necessity of narrative, as well as the ways narrative and memory are “slippery,” can deceive (whether via other or self-deception), hinted at by the way lies, masks, and shadows crop up again and again throughout the story. And the wat the house itself can be “read” as story: the way entrances and exits are important, how it curves in on itself, how it’s easy to get lost inside, how it’s full of surprises, the way “a room is a sort of narrative when an intelligence moves through it,” the ways stories are haunted by both authors and readers.
The mystery had me interested, the language won me over, but the richly layered themes are what made me fall in love with this novella. So much so that when too much time had passed after I had read it for me to write a decent review, I happily sat down to read it again, not caring the whodunnit part held no more mystery. And I fell in love all over again. Highly recommended.