Let the Dark Flower Blossom

A novel by Norah Labiner

Finalist for the Minnesota Book Award!

Let the Dark Flower Blossom thrills in all the right ways: itʼs moody, suspenseful, and intellectually exciting. The story defies all expectations and comes replete with the chilly darkness of characters mining whatʼs long been buried. Norah Labiner is an ambitious artist and this may be the most satisfying novel Iʼve read all year.”—Dean Bakopoulos

May 2013
384 pages
Paperback Original

Thanks to a 2013 ADA Access Improvement Grant administered by VSA Minnesota for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, this title is also formatted for screen readers which make text accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

To purchase this title for use with a screen reader please call (612) 338-0125 or email us at info@coffeehousepress.org.

ISBN: 978-1-56689-320-6.



Sheldon and Eloise Schell are twins, orphans, and the estranged college companions of the rich, scandalous, celebrated Roman Stone. Now Roman is dead, stabbed in the heart, and Eloise and Sheldon must separately tease out their secret past—a burning house, a murdered girl—that is the one story they could never tell.

Moving between the muffled plush of wintry Chicago, the fog-bound darkness of a Lake Superior island, and the even darker precincts of memory, Let the Dark Flower Blossom is a book about the pull of the closed door. It is about the small pleasure of being right, the tremendous thrill of doing wrong, and the lengths writers will go to—lie, steal, kill—to get the perfect story.

See Labiner’s book notes for this novel here!


Let the Dark Flower Blossom, in addition to being an elegant and sometimes jarring exploration of the malevolent and destructive power that stories can wield, is for most of its duration a page-turning murder mystery.” Star Tribune

“As rewarding as it is challenging, this book is a great alternative to a beach read for those who love literary mysteries . . . Recommended for those who thought that even Gone Girl didn’t have enough troubled characters and unforeseen twists.” Library Journal 

“Labiner, narrating in several distinct and haunting voices, proves herself a metafictional adept. She succeeds in crafting an ambitious, poignant and sharp-tongued novel filled with secrets and ghosts, jealousy and love.” Publishers Weekly

“[A] puzzle of a book, [Let the Dark Flower Blossom] engages one’s attention through staccato prose and a number of interrelated and compelling characters . [T]his ‘existential murder mystery’ . . . will reward attentive readers.” Booklist

“Dark and intriguing.” Kirkus Reviews

Let The Dark Flower Blossom [is] Norah Labiner’s densely layered, self-reflexive novel that is about much more than just a brother and sister. . . . Labiner demands a lot of her reader, challenges you to reassess your sense of self and to revisit your most important stories, asking the whole time: is this memory true? Does it matter?” The Philadelphia Review of Books

“Norah Labiner’s Let the Dark Flower Blossom (Coffee House Press) is a definitely a novel for writers and avid readers. It is one of those intellectually written novels that doesn’t just tell a story in a smart and unique way, it examines the story and all of the aspects that make a story, the elements that a story needs to succeed in a readers mind.” Busking at the Seams

“The complex characters, the oppressive sense of fate, the vivid winter landscape, and, most of all, the challenging questions about the nature of storytelling lingered long after I finished Let the Dark Flower Blossom. . . . [A] tale to be read curled up, surrounded by your own papers and the stories they hold, as the snow falls in the background.” Minerva Rising

Let the Dark Flower Blossom will subsume you. It’s a protean universe—lush with scandal, violence, and perverse glamour—where everything and nothing is true. . . . As readers we are implicated. As readers we bear guilt. On the rare occasion of novels such as this, our passivity is revoked and we are restored, if monstrously, to power.” KGB Bar Lit Magazine

“The joy of Let the Dark Flower Blossom is going on this complicated journey—speculating on the monstrosity of novels with their great narratives of escape, their vastness, their horrors and tragedies—to come to discover what a ‘perfect’ story is for you. With a wicked sense of humor, a compelling narrative, beautiful lyrical language, and strong characters, Labiner does not disappoint.” Arcadia Magazine

“Labiner’s tale first draws a set of compelling characters, and then connects them. . . . Even better, the reader gets to unravel a series of dark secrets and try to solve a murder, or two.” MinnPost

“[T]his is a first-rate, highly literate murder mystery, one that proves even more rewarding . . . on a second read.” Minnesota Magazine

Let the Dark Flower Blossom is wholly original and brilliantly imaginative. . . . The author has created a living narrative, one that almost seems to grow, change, and breathe right before our eyes. It is almost as if Labiner’s story has a mind of its own. You’ll never read a book the same way again.” Gently Read Literature

“I was driven forward by the mystery’s peculiar unravelings and . . . by the haunting beauty of Labiner’s writing. [T]he way Let the Dark Flower Blossom encourages reflection on the malleability of memories, and on the stories we make from them, was, for me, one of the great pleasures of the book.” Small Press Picks

“Labiner, with a firm control over events . . . and a fine way with language, presents us with an intellectual murder mystery that seeks to determine how writers’ foibles and eccentricities can be dangerous to themselves and, often, to others.” Quarterly Conversation

“Beautifully worded and stylistically arranged, Let the Dark Flower Blossomis an innovative and candid take on the world of writers, relationships, and human nature itself.” —The Corresponder

“Labiner’s writing has a perseverative quality, like an incantation. . . . Story and memory become characters in their own right, malleable and unreliable. The novel is either a map or a maze that leads into a fractured gothic tale of guilt, crime, and the distortions of reality and memory.” —NewPages


“This is a literary thriller about the process of writing, and, like that process, it consists of many good ideas, and some puzzling ones. . . . Labiner rewards, not mocks, the reader’s investment in the plot and characters.” Electric Literature

Let the Dark Flower Blossom thrills in all the right ways: itʼs moody, suspenseful, and intellectually exciting. The story defies all expectations and comes replete with the chilly darkness of characters mining whatʼs long been buried. Norah Labiner is an ambitious artist and this may be the most satisfying novel Iʼve read all year.” —Dean Bakopoulos

“A dark and truly original work of extraordinary strangeness and beauty.” —Emily St. John Mandel

“[A] ‘literary ambush’—perfect for a stormy summer night.” Minnesota Monthly’s “Local Literati Share Their Summer Reading Lists”

“[I]t’s like a swirling maelstrom of words that will eat your evening, and you will LOVE IT for doing so.”—Insatiable Booksluts

“Gothic noir, Greek classics, post-modern disjunction, add a pinch of snails and puppy dog’s tails and you have the page turning quality of a who-done-it.”Drunken Boat

Click here to watch a BookReviewTV video review of Let the Dark Flower Blossom.

Check out this article  from the author on the Jaded Ibis Productions website.

Midwestern Gothic, Click Here for an interview with the author.


Sheldon finds no justice in poetry

Roman Stone is dead. I read about it in the newspaper. His obituary ran in The New York Times with that picture of him from the jacket of his first book: twenty-years-old, smiling, fair-haired, and careless. He was never one to put on the serious face of the tortured artist for a press photo. He was never the intellectual caught in deep contemplation of the human soul. No, you’d find him grinning as though the photographer captured him just at a dirty joke’s obscene one-two punch. He exemplified that rule so beloved by English professors, myself once included: he wrote from experience. Herein was—or is—the danger. He was a storyteller. His life was his logos. And his death—his murder—was only the second best story that he never told.

I live on an island. Nothing goes to waste here. The apples are sweet. The grapes are sour. I have a hatchet and a shovel. Newspapers come to my box at the postal station. I save the old papers for kindling. This morning when I lit the stove, I found myself burning Roman’s picture. I tried to get the page back from the fire, but I was too late.

What could I do but let it burn?

I have never found any justice in poetry.

He died six months ago in Virgil’s Grove, Iowa, while watching a baseball game on television. He was discovered by a delivery girl bringing his dinner: two cheeseburgers, onion rings, and chocolate cake. She said that the door was open; that she heard the cheering crowd.

He wrote of fate and then fell to it.

The obit called him a provocateur.

The police called his death the result of a robbery gone wrong.

Anaxagoras said: The descent to hell is the same from all places, but it was my sister Eloise who pronounced on the day—or maybe it was night—she met him: Roman Stone was born to be murdered. She wasn’t joking. Eloise, who is the younger twin by a matter of minutes, felt—or feels—an absolute narrative honesty that I myself have never quite been able to evince.

Be true, my father used to tell us. Or maybe he didn’t say it; maybe I read it in a book. Suffice it to say; admonitions and prognostications aside: Roman was lucky. He was lucky, right up until the moment that he wasn’t. His father was a Nobel Prize winner; his mother, an actress turned political activist. He was big and brash and relevant as hell. Even his death was relevant. America’s literary zeitgeist cut down in the heartland? What did it mean? Was it a metaphor? Or a symbol? It was more than an ending; it alluded to godlessness and dark times ahead.

Roman’s widow, Dibby, wore to his memorial service a black dress made by some certain in-demand designer; and his mournful readers wondered, without guile or accusation, only curiosity, about how much such a garment must have cost. Roman’s two sons, in Eton suits with short pants and knee socks, sat one on either side of their spectacularly pretty nanny. Dibby Stone sat further down the aisle—disconsolate; crying into a black lace handkerchief—propped between a foreign diplomat and a film star, both of them, dear acquaintances of her late husband.

The eulogy began with a question.

Who was Roman Magnus Stone?

The question sounds like a quiz show answer. I remember suddenly a winter afternoon years ago. Nothing brings out nostalgia—even for the rotten times—like loss.

Who was Roman Stone?

I am Sheldon Schell.

I was once his sidekick. Back in the days when we were young, when the paparazzi loved nothing more than to catch a close-up candid of Roman—the loudmouth, the lothario—getting into trouble. Remember the time he threw that pompous actor into a swimming pool? Or how he smashed-up his Porsche but walked away from the wreckage without a scratch on him? What about that award ceremony where he fell off the stage? You may not have noticed me in the photographs, but there I am nonetheless, lurking behind Ro or half-dissected—an arm or shoulder only—in the frame. There is one particular shot of us—; it was snapped at a Hollywood premiere. This was 1983. Roman’s first novel had just been adapted into a film. He could do no wrong. He was romancing a starlet. His name was inscribed in the gossip columns. The photo appeared in a glossy magazine known for tracking the comings and goings of the latest glitterati. The girl, Roman, and I stand before an absurdly flowing champagne fountain. I am scowling. Roman has his arm around the girl. She is fawnish and fragile. He appears like a golden good-humored satyr at her side. The caption reads: Harlow Jamison and Roman Stone, with unidentified friend, also a novelist. Soon after this, the girl made a splash by very publicly breaking up with Roman and then checking herself into rehab. I don’t know to what substance exactly she was addicted, but she had a complete breakdown. I heard that she never quite recovered her mind. This is not said as an indictment of the poor girl’s character; she was delicate. Soulful, even. I always liked her. I offer this detail as a testament to how difficult it was for the rest of us to keep up with Roman.

I am S.Z. Schell.

I am also a novelist.

This is not a novel. It is a memoir; it is a memoir by way of being a compendium of memories. It is a true story, even if the truth that I supply is based on nothing more tangible or less axiomatic than my capacity for remembrance itself.

I am a hermit, sure—a misanthrope, maybe. I won’t attempt to provide some simulacrum of the past. I won’t go about arranging memories into an orderly line of time—simply for the sake of readers. Readers; oh! was Ro ever mad for them. Pleasing an audience was only his second favorite perversion. No one could toss the coin, knot the noose, or beat the clock as he could. When he had a girl tied to the chair, you always turned the page a little more quickly. Poor rotten Ro—the book club heartthrob. He was admired and annotated. He was born to be explicated. Who could deny him this rite of final exegesis?

I was born in Omena, Michigan, in 1960. I was named after my father. My sister was named for my mother. Twins ran in our family; and it was said that of the two children, one would be good and the other bad. A twisting dirt road led to us. Our house bordered a salt creek. We crossed the creek to get to the woods beyond. We had a garden with an apple tree, with plums, and roses, and white flowers climbing a wooden fence. The fence was meant to keep the deer out, but it did not. They were drawn to the salt. The flowers must have tasted of it. The white flowers opened at night. The apples were sweet for only a short time before the snow fell.

My father saw the world in terms of right and wrong, and this caused him unbearable pain. He was prone to headaches. He had fits of despair. He slept by day; and was wary of sunlight. My mother gave him medicine. Sometimes he wept. And his face would go ghostly white. At night he descended the staircase. He looked then, as Moses must have when he came down from the mountain. We whispered, so as not to disturb the substance of his suffering. We were in awe of him; of his agonies. He built wooden toys: little ships, mazes, tops, dollhouses, and boxes. By trade, he was a casket-maker; by philosophical bent, he was a phenomenologist; by way of Medieval humor, melancholic. My sister and I called his dark moods: the crazies.

I spent hours in escape at the library. I read books filled with strange acts: bravery, sacrifice, love, unspeakable emotions. I fought bulls and fished with Hemingway. I walked the Liffy’s banks with Joyce. Flaubert unbuttoned Emma’s blouse. Fitzgerald took me for riotous excursions in his Stutz Bearcat. I hopped trains with Kerouac and shared a prison cell with Koestler. I went underground. I lighted out for the territories. I lost myself in Faulkner’s wisteria-scented twilight. I lost track of time idling along Swann’s Way. I learned. I dreamed. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write novels. It was with great adolescent and egomaniacal pleasure that I wandered the fiction stacks alphabet-wise—moving slowly, running my fingers along the spines—coming to a halt—finding the place where one day my own book would sit. I knew words. I had dreams. What did I lack? I lacked only experience.

I longed for experience. And then I went to college.

And I met Roman Stone.

Sheldon, I was named. Shelly, I was called. Or Shel.

I preferred to see my name in initials.

Eloise and I won scholarships to Illyria College. We traveled from Michigan to Iowa on a Greyhound bus. We took turns at the window seat. She read The White Goddess. I scribbled colossal thoughts in my notebook. I was anxious to begin my life. I had a portable typewriter; a box packed full of paperback editions of modernist classics; and a dossier file of letters of reference from former English teachers. I was, they agreed: a real writer.

Roman came from the East. He had been kicked out of any number of prep schools. His father was an economist, an expert in monetary theory. He played golf with the president and racquetball with Kissinger. He was—a nut; no, what’s the word?—eccentric. He loved to barter, to swap, to trade. He collected pop art, vintage pornography, young wives, and murder weapons from famous crimes. He was a nut, sure, but even he had limits to luxury; he was unhappy with his son’s antics. He wanted Roman to take college seriously. Milton Stone exiled his only son to Illyria in hopes that Ro would get into less trouble out in Iowa than he had in Maine, in Vermont, in Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. What did Ro’s mother think about all this? She couldn’t be concerned with something as effete as her son’s academic mishaps. She was a knockout Swedish girl who had appeared in one or two Bergman films in the late fifties. His parents met at the Nobel Awards ceremony; their marriage—a brief ill-fit union of button-down capitalism and sans-brassiere socialism that produced one singularly amoral child—didn’t last long. Astrid, his mother, left Roman with his father in New York, while she went off and worked in refugee camps in various war- and disease ravaged places across the globe. When Roman was sixteen his father married again; this time to a nineteen-year-old piano prodigy. If I inherited from my father his mercurial moods, Roman got from Milton Stone the hapless ability to accumulate cash and appreciate spectacular girls. Appreciate is too politic a word. To hear Roman tell: he really fell for his stepmother. He said that he seduced the poor girl, while his father in the next room was on the telephone explaining risk aversion to the president. All this: the family yarns, the tangle of fame and sex and money and genius, made up the substance of Babylon Must Fall, Roman’s blockbuster first novel.

We were an unlikely pair, Stone & Schell, like an old vaudeville team, the suave straight man and the goofy fall guy. It was the luck of the draw that brought us together; we were assigned as roommates at Illyria in September 1978. He had spent that summer slumming around London. I had been stocking shelves at the Ben Franklin. We got on as only opposites do. I was serious, and he was a showman. I was anxious, and he was an exhibitionist. He was a Yankees fan; his father had season tickets. I followed the travails of the Tigers on a transistor radio. If you want to be high-minded about it: he was Dionysian, and I was Apollonian. We were eighteen. I was a slow learner; he was a quick study. I was dark. He was blonde and blue-eyed; when he was drunk or otherwise inspired his high forehead glowed pink, damp and radiant. He carried his weight well; he was broad and easy and affable. I was too tall and tended to stoop, hunch, and mumble. I had in me more of my father’s crazies than I then dared to admit.

I never minded that Roman took center stage—or centerfield—and he, for his part, loved an audience. He was elegiac on the topic of baseball; in the truest degenerate crypto-Byronic sense, he was romantic. And this drove girls mad for him. He dated Eloise. He broke her heart, though she readily and repeatedly forgave him. Girls always forgave him. His cruelty seemed, at least to them, unintentional.

He wrote the book in one draft on my typewriter. I should have taken this as a symbolic or territorial affront, as bad as, or worse than his mistreatment of my twin. But I was silent. Babylon Must Fall was published in our senior year of college. And it was a hit. The world was ripe and ready for Roman. He arrived on the scene at the age of twenty, just when readers needed him most. They were tired of important books: of morality tales, politics, the past, the 1970s; war and peace and psychedelia; of hullabaloo, hippies and beatniks; historical epics; manifestos and feminism; radical chic and issue art; of intellectual games, puzzlers, and poetic one-upmanship. They wanted flat-out fun. They wanted stories about beautiful young people with money doing wicked things. This, Roman could and did provide. He wrote the perfect contemporary novel. It was sweet and sharp and smart and salty and melt-in-your-mouth at the shopping mall sordid.

The book was destined for Hollywood.

And we followed not far behind.

After graduation Roman went out to California. And, I with no plans of my own, and swept-up in the maelstrom of his literary success, tagged along. In L.A. Roman fit right in. He was fair-haired and tan. He bought a Porsche convertible. He wore linen suits and sneakers. He turned up his collar and never turned down an invitation. I was adrift. I was aimless. I was no good at sunshine. I was—everyone in Roman’s hip new entourage agreed—a real buzzkill. We went to discos, to parties, to private after-hours clubs where uninhibited rich kids shed even the last of their inhibitions. I couldn’t get troubled thoughts out of my head: my father’s moral questions; Moses coming down the mountain; the image of Lot’s wife—casting one last longing glance over her shoulder—harrowed me. Sure, I swam in the ocean. I gazed at palm trees. I ate oranges. Sodom was sensational. Gomorrah was great. Roman was in his element. But I was lousy at the lewd life. So what did I do? I retreated from California in despair. My quest for experience was a gold-rush bust. I went back to the Midwest.

Roman left soon after. He headed for New York, where he got caught up in the cocaine, irony, and high fashion crowd. He wore black and championed l’art brut. I buried myself in graduate school in Wisconsin. Ro sent me postcards. In Las Vegas gambling fascinated him. In Lake Tahoe he learned to ski moguls; he broke his leg and discovered the joys of Demerol. Paris was a blur. Rome was a riot. I took a teaching job at Lindbergh College in Minnesota. I married a girl named Pru. She was an art department beauty, a painter of abstract self-portraits. In brief: we were young. We were happy and unhappy by turns. I complained about my students. Pru colored her hair—pink, blue, violet. I never liked teaching, never had the knack for it. In New Orleans Roman got fat on deep-fried beignets and teacup bourbon. He leaned left—or right—depending on who was buying the drinks—in Miami with the expat intelligentsia. From Seattle, Ro wrote that kids were wearing torn flannel, shooting up heroin, and playing dark music down in basements. I couldn’t have cared less. I stopped opening his letters. I barely glanced at the pictures—the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower—on his postcards. I was getting on with my life.

I lost track of Roman over the years. At least, I tried to lose track of him. Just when I thought that he was gone, he would resurface with a new skill, a new interest, a new book. He was a great success at absolutely everything in general and nothing in particular. He hobnobbed. He gobbled. He got around. He dined at the White House. He met Princess Di; she was rumored to be a big fan. Roman became a celebrity. He was a natural. People liked him. They bought his books; went to his lectures; laughed at his jokes; liked to know what he was wearing; where he ate and drank; what drugs he was doing or from which he was being rehabilitated. They followed his romances, indiscretions, his fetishes, and bad break-ups. And when he gave up his enfant terrible antics—married an honest-to-god Southern belle and finally, it seemed, traded his cosmopolitan perversions for suburban bliss—his readers breathed a collective sigh of relief. His readers wanted the best for him. For some strange reason, it seemed to be in America’s best interest to see Roman Stone happy.

I never wanted to tell this story.