Fervor & Lightness

The sea inside you. That’s where you sail.
–from A Single Rose

When French novelist Muriel Barbery’s A Single Rose was first published in 2021, I read and relished it as a meditative experience as well as a compelling narrative. One of the novel’s structural elements that creates this impression is how each of the twelve chapters of this slim but brimming book is preceded by a short prologue with some enticing passage from Japanese folklore or a philosophical rendering that creates an artful segue into the successive chapter.

For example: “There is in Kyoto an ordinary temple that has none of the beauty of the city’s great jewels, but it is beloved for its plot of two thousand plum trees, and the entire city goes for walks there during the final days of February. And yet Issa, the magnificent poet, only went there when the wood of the trees was still black and barren, devoid of the flowers that would later fill the surroundings with fragrance. If, now and again, someone showed concern regarding this inclination that robbed him of the loveliest show of blooms all year, he would laugh and say: I have waited a long time in deprivation; now the plum blossom is inside me.” And then begins Chapter 6, “The Plum Blossom Is Inside Me.”

I have waited a long time in deprivation; now the plum blossom is inside me.


The larger story that harbors these gems is that of Rose, a forty year old botanist of French and Japanese descent. Raised by her French grandmother, she is visiting Japan for the first time at the behest of her recently deceased father, Haru Ueno, whom she never knew. He has left an itinerary for her to follow during her stay that concludes with the reading of his will.

It was more than a mere path; this is a journey, thought Rose, a way toward the end or toward the beginning.

-from A Single Rose

Her father’s closest aide, a Belgian man named Paul, is to be her guide as she visits the iconic temples and sites of Kyoto that her father wished her to experience. The reader is brought into Rose’s initiation into a culture she is far outside of, yet discovers she has a thirst for, as well as a growing understanding of the father she never knew.

The beauty and culture of Kyoto (often called the “soul of Japan”) is not just the backdrop for this story, it is the very heart of it. As Rose becomes immersed in the world of her absent father and his closest friends and confidantes, the reader is brought along into a revelation of the place—another realm opens. One you want to return to again and again.

This month Barbery’s new book One Hour of Fervor, the prequel to A Single Rose, is being released by Europa Editions. An equally captivating novel, it goes back in time to reveal the origins of Rose’s father, Haru. Each character is perfectly placed, like the stones in the gardens, creating a larger scene—and then larger, in concentric circles of awareness. The reader comes to understand the formative years of Haru’s life, his upbringing in the snowy mountains of his family home in Takayama, his eventual migration to Kyoto where he would “live his true life,” his lifelong quest for beauty, his connection with Rose’s mother Maud, and finally his experience of deep love and loss with Rose herself.

Stories speak to us,
we don’t know how they do it.

–from One Hour of Fervor

The metronome of Haru’s life was his weekly walk to Shinnyo-dō.

–from One Hour of Fervor

I began by saying that I read these novels partly as a meditative experience. Essentially it turns out to be a rumination on change. Each character goes through the process of finding their way “home” in some way—through solace from sorrow, or through art or in natural beauty—but ultimately, through the many varied threads of love and friendship.

It is as Rose herself says in the course of the story: “So much pleasure born of such bare simplicity.”

Happy Reading!