Cassie’s Rose by Elizabeth Doyle
(Zebra, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-7470-0
I picked up Cassie’s Rose because I was interested in the storyline. I am intrigued by stories that deal with early Australia and the penal system. There are all sorts of fascinating directions that such a tale can take. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Doyle’s new book takes so many directions that it becomes hard to follow the plot.

The story begins in the usual fashion: a young, genteel woman is falsely convicted of murder and is sentenced to twenty-years penal servitude. Cassie has been charged with murdering a vagrant for reasons that are never made entirely clear - one of the first problems with the book. What in the world was her supposed motive? If she had excellent counsel, how did the charge stick? What exactly was the evidence against her? Clearly she was “set up,” but how and why did this set up work? These issues became increasingly important as the story proceeds.

The book opens with Cassie on one of the ships that is carrying convicts to Australia. Doyle effectively describes the dreadful conditions of the voyage and the horrible treatment meted out to the female prisoners. She also creates a scenario that allows Cassie to escape the worst fate most young women on the ship: being sexually brutalized by the guards. Another, experienced prisoner becomes her protector and surrogate. Sheena is on her second trip to Australia and knows the ropes.

On arriving in Sydney, Cassie is assigned as housekeeper to one of the city’s doctors, Malcolm Rutherford. She is escorted to his home, given a pleasant room, and treated with respect. She knows what her fate is likely to be, but is surprised that Malcolm makes no demands on her other than that she tend his house. She soon discovers why; Malcolm was himself a convict before he served his time and began to practice his profession. He thus refuses to take sexual advantage of his new housekeeper.

Cassie soon comes to value her kindly master and is attracted to him. Malcolm finds his lovely housekeeper a constant temptation but is determined to resist. Cassie says, what the heck, I’m ruined anyway, why not act on my feelings. So the two become lovers. But forces beyond their control threaten Cassie and separate the two. Someone wants Cassie dead. Then things really become confusing and improbable.

None of the characters - except perhaps the unfeeling guards - are particularly believable. Doyle tries to create in Malcolm a man with dark secrets and dark desires. She doesn’t quite succeed. Rather than complex, he comes across as confused. Cassie, once the supposed mainstay of her family thanks to her determination and good sense, shows few of these qualities as the story progresses.

Most problematic is the author’s jumping back and forth across the vast distance between England and Australia. She visits Cassie’s hapless family to introduce the efforts to prove her innocence and has Sheena - who has escaped from Australia - become partners with Cassie’s younger brother to uncover the true culprit and the motive. This part of the story is no more probable than the rest.

In short, Cassie’s Rose is an incoherent story with improbable characters and an unlikely plot. While it does portray in some detail the inhumanity of the penal system, it does not truly engage the reader.

--Jean Mason

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