Review: 'Rosewater' by Liv Little
The emotional rollercoaster of having to constantly mend the various parts of your life back together becomes increasingly familiar in your 20s. In Liv Little’s debut novel Rosewater, we bear witness to 28-year-old Elsie Macintosh stitching (and restitching) her life back together time and time again, all while grappling with the idea of home. The novel begins with Elsie getting evicted from her house, and proceeds to slowly reveal the other ways in which she yearns for a safe landing place. Through this yearning and the way it shows up in Elsie’s relationships, Liv Little is able to illustrate the way intimacy, tenderness and love is the necessary grout that moulds our existence together.
Infused throughout the novel are soothing cups of tea as well as pints from local pubs that placate the British reader, and situates the non-British one firmly into the setting of the novel. More narrowly, in London, there is access to Guyanese food that Elsie enjoyed in her home city of Bristol before moving away, and the way that same Guyanese food becomes a thick buffer in a once a year routine where her estranged parents visit her for a meal. Elsie is willing to indulge them in this routine as “token gift to them, a moment when they can perform parenthood and feel as though they’re doing it- have always done it- right.” Little subverts a routine that is often associated with closeness and the act of service in preparing a meal as an expression of love, and instead writes it as a shell of itself in order for the parents to posture as a family. Elsie having to order in the food from a Guyanese spot for their visit as she knows “anything [she] cook[s] would inevitably fall short,” further realises this familial strain.
Conversely, you have a much more sincere relationship between Elsie and her Nan. In her Nan, with a “rich Guyanese accent, sunny and familiar,” whose signature dishes like pepperpot and her “unrivaled” saltfish always manage to provide respite, Little has created a character many Black readers will recognise. The maternal figure who won’t let you leave her home with an empty belly is a staple of nurture and love for many Black communities. In a poem inspired by her grandmother’s pepperpot dish, Elsie writes, “we have been handed scraps to make a meal from the beginning of time…it takes one meal to know you are you.” With her Nan, Guyanese food becomes a homecoming. She continues, “4 garlic cloves/ (And no goodbyes, cos a house full of love is always full)/ 4 springs of thyme/ (And a wish for extra time, here in the family. I mean this pot).” Here, the notion of family is not shallow, but genuine and persisting.Even without the maintenance of routine (Elsie had not returned to her grandmother’s house in Bristol since she left when she was 16). With her Nan, nourishment from food becomes synonymous with that from her love, and it is fitting that it’s a thick, hearty, warm pepperpot meal that this care manifests in.
Towards the end of the novel, Elsie finds out that her Nan is queer, just as she is, and it feels like their relationship has set the stage for the safety for them to share this moment. We see food as a precursor for safety again in the herbal teas Juliet, Elsie’s best friend, prepares for her to drink, “to enhance [her] creativity: a blend of lemon balm, green rooibos and something else.” Juliet’s love for Elise is anchored by faith. A faith big and sturdy enough for Elsie to tap into when she is too frustrated to create her own. The herbs are a show of this faith; it’s clear to Juliet that the issue with Elsie’s poetry was never a lack of talent, she just needed a stimulus.
In return, Elsie’s love for Juliet has her stepping up. With Juliet, Elsie grows in love. We see this when she compromises and selflessly indulges Juliet in the vegan diet, and we also see it in the vulnerability she lets herself invite when they have sex. Elsie joins the company of the likes of Taiye from Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi. But unlike Ekwuyasi’s novel, Rosewater is not a novel that makes a lot of time for queer shame when it comes to their sexuality. Little creates a protagonist who not only revels in physical pleasure, but finds a home in it- “sex and poetry are my safe places,” Elsie says. In fact, all the women in Rosewater unashamedly enjoy sex and we see this in Little’s syrupy descriptions: “bod[ies] convulse eagerly,” and they “dance, seamlessly moving from one position to another…kisses are warm, full, messy and long.”
Even when Elsie is not having it she still revels in it; she listens to Jill Scott as she “makes delicious love,” in "Love Rain” and “think[s] of the first time [she’d] experienced those sensations.” Sometimes for Elsie this indulgence becomes a mechanism for avoidance and the sensuality in the act is devoid of emotional intimacy. Little moulds a character who loves sex and is not instinctually hyper sentimental about it. Elsie only lets herself lean into the vulnerability when she is intimate with her best friend, Juliet. Here, we finally see her let go of control; “at first I try to muffle the sounds my body is making, but then I scream uncontrollably because it has never felt this good.” Elsie eagerly surrenders into her body, drinking up not only the carnal pleasure that comes with touch, but also the intimacy between them.
Rosewater is described as a love story, and it is in that there is so much love to be found among the women in the book. But in the literary sense, Little leans heavily onto romance writing tropes in the second half of Elsie and Juliet’s love affair. By the time Andrew and Juliet’s relationship crystallises, it’s instantly clear that Elsie and Juliet’s relationship will be one “second chance” romance. You know that Andrew will be swiftly jettisoned for a Happily Ever After. And while tragedy bringing two lovers together is certainly not unrealistic, it goes against the simmering push and pull that was the underlay of Juliet and Elsie’s relationship. So much so that it feels a bit like whiplash. The car accident being the catalyst for the revelation that the two do indeed want to be together does not seem to serve the story much beyond dramatic effect. It also rids the book of the tense uncertainty that was so gripping in the first half.
Rosewater is at its best when the answers are unclear; when Elsie is growing in her relationships through this negotiation with (giving or withholding) sensuality and how the political instability that rids us of safety adds precarity. The novel flourishes when we are rooting for a young, Black, queer poet trying to heal and love and feel safe with the hope that they will indeed be able to; when the readers have to summon the same amount of optimism and bravery it takes for the protagonist to lean onto her support system. In the best parts of Rosewater, Liv Little offers us a morsel of faith that we will continue to find safe landing places, and that some of these will have enough constancy to turn into a home.