Ignorance, by Michèle Roberts, Bloomsbury, £14.99, 240 pages
In “Ma Semblable Ma Soeur”, a short story by Michèle Roberts, twin sisters swap places every couple of months, to have “the best of both worlds”. The girls in Roberts’ latest novel, Ignorance, have no such opportunity. Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angèle Blanchard might look alike “as two dried peas” in their grey convent-school uniforms but they are irredeemably separated by their backgrounds; Jeanne is the daughter of a Jewish widow, the cleaning lady for Marie-Angèle’s mother, who owns a profitable grocery store.
Roberts’ 15th novel is told from the perspectives of four women, including Jeanne and Marie-Angèle, and is united by a breathless tone and a tendency towards Gothic hysteria. When their French village is occupied by the Germans, Marie-Angèle marries Maurice, whose job managing food coupons gives him a worrying power over the other villagers. Jeanne turns to prostitution and, after an affair with a German soldier, gets pregnant – a misdemeanour for which she, along with all the other “tarts”, is made to parade before the village, her head shaved as a symbol of shame. Meanwhile, she discovers that Marie-Angèle’s husband is not such a catch; a regular client at the brothel, his attempts to hide Jewish members of the community are, she realises, fuelled by an interest in their money more than by moral indignation.
Roberts returns here to the themes of her Booker Prize-nominated Daughters of the House (1992), also set during the French occupation: the parallel lives of two females, difficult mother-daughter relationships, the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, the secrets of a tight-knit French community. Her purple prose has been compared to the boisterous fiction of Angela Carter or Jeanette Winterson. Here, it is better characterised by an excess of similes – at times pleasingly divergent (the “world,” Jeanne recalls, “had turned inside out, like a pullover, and shaken me off like a ball of fluff”), and often a bit absurd. “Sometimes,” says Jeanne’s illegitimate child, Andrée, “her absence felt solid as lentil purée, pressed on my heart like a weight on pâté.”
Ignorance itself, Roberts suggests in this overstuffed melodrama, is most often self-imposed – a trope we use to protect ourselves from the truth or a way of hiding from our own risk-ridden identities. For all her flaws, Roberts is in no danger of blending into the crowd.