Said the late American author Eudora Welty: “People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel, but place heals the hurt and soothes the outrage.” Such is the case in Alice Zorn’s compassionate sophomore novel about secrets, loss and the role played by home in the lives of the three heroines.

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Said the late American author Eudora Welty: "People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel, but place heals the hurt and soothes the outrage." Such is the case in Alice Zorn’s compassionate sophomore novel about secrets, loss and the role played by home in the lives of the three heroines.

Originally from Ontario, Zorn currently resides in the Pointe St. Charles neighbourhood in Montreal. Her previous books include the 2009 short story collection Ruins and Relics and the 2011 debut novel Arrhythmia about an affair between two Montreal hospital employees.

Her latest novel bears some similarities in terms of setting and workplace, but the tone and focus differ.

At the outset, it is 2005 and we meet the three protagonists — Rose, Maddie and Fara.

Raised in isolation in rural Quebec, 27-year-old Rose moves to Montreal and gets a job as a hospital aide. Through an ad, she finds a roommate, a young Trinidadian woman working as a server at a patisserie in the Pointe. There Rose also finds a studio to do her weaving.

A co-worker of Rose’s roommate, 40-something Maddy, is a longtime homeowner in the Pointe. The house next door has been vacant for a long time, owing to a tragedy. Then Fara, a hospital unit co-ordinator, and her husband buy the place and renovate it.

The three women harbour secrets from the past that haunt them. The plot thickens when changes in their places of residence trigger crises, followed by unexpected results. It’s tough to reveal more about the plot without spoilers.

The novel’s elegant, cinematic narrative unfolds in two linear parts. The first section — a single chapter — recounts the story of Rose’s mother Therese and her illicit deed. Thereafter the narrative tells the stories of Fara, Rose and Maddy in alternating voices.

Throughout the novel, Zorn’s linguistic skills are well evidenced; she can sketch a situation with few deft phrases. In one instance, she describes Maddy’s emotional state during a bicycle ride by the Lachine Canal: "Her heart opened with the view as the river widened. She loved its blue lizard-skin ripple and the frills of foam from the rapids in the distance."

The book’s well-chosen title refers to the inscription on a large neon sign in Pointe St. Charles. The same words were printed on a flour sack that covered the sofa in Therese’s cabin. Accordingly, she chose the name Rose for her daughter and later made up a bedtime story for her about five magical roses. Years later, the neon sign remains in the neighbourhood; not only is it an orientation point, but also a reminder of the Pointe’s industrial past.

Much to her credit, Zorn aptly portrays the vibrant, albeit gritty, ambience of the Pointe. Once dilapidated, the neighbourhood is becoming gentrified as more people flock there because of affordable housing. To some extent, the Pointe symbolizes the state of flux in the lives of the protagonists and the sense of renewal they seek.

Also noteworthy is the depiction of the employees’ interaction within the workplace vignettes. In the hospital scenes, the inclusion of jargon in the dialogue gives us an insider’s view; at the patisserie, readers learn first-hand about the petty politics and disgruntlement there from the servers’ heated verbal exchanges.

Zorn does many things well here. Still, the ending may leave some readers frustrated because of its abruptness and the lack of resolution to one of the most compelling plot threads.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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