Given its French setting, I would immediately recommend this exquisitely written novel to anyone who has marvelled over the consummate skill behind Monet’s Impressionist paintings of Rouen Cathedral: indistinct blurs which come into focus when you step away from them. And, in a literary context, one of those novels about a difficult and ambiguous past, where the reader reconstructs that past along with the main characters.
Considering that so little is explicitly said, the summer spent by two adolescent girls in post-Second World War France is vividly rendered. The allusive titles of the chapters - “The Frying-Pan”, “The Oranges”, “The Ironing-Board” - are an important clue to the oppressively domestic setting, but also to the way in which deep and disturbing truths lie behind apparently ordinary objects. And the same is true of words. “Her words shot out in a clatter”, reads one sentence about half-way through the narrative. And, throughout the novel, words do indeed clatter, and resound and reverberate, echoing and amplifying earlier words, combining to show how deep and unpleasant truths are to be found beneath platitudinous surfaces.
The veneer of civilised behaviour is always thin and precarious in Michèle Roberts’s novel. And there are dark forests and dark cellars to mirror the dark secrets the novel gradually unfolds. The whole novel is a dark diamond, and one which demands to be contemplated more than once.