on 31 May 2012
I adored this book and it would grace any Booker or Orange Prize shortlist. Roberts deals with some heartbreaking and difficult issues through the narratives of Jeanne, Marie-Angele and others. Roberts creates individual voices through some wonderful prose and I loved the imagery she uses which develops the psychology of the women revealing their fears and and hurts which is uncomfortable but never intrusive. The worlds of childhood and Nazi France merges: pamphlets that Jeanne distributes are "lost handerkerchiefs" and the prostitutes are sweets chosen by their clients. I felt totally wrapped up in the world of the novel: the privations and hardships of the Second World War are so well realised. Paper is so scarce and this runs through the book; everything is harboured and reused. The smells and textures of this world are wonderfully evoked. Some may find the ending a little unsatisfactory but this is a terrific book and there would be much to discuss for book groups too.
Michèle Roberts's "Ignorance" is a beautifully written, lyrical story about life in wartime France. Narrated mainly by two characters, Jeanne and Marie-Angèle, it jumps back and forward in time and is an enthralling mixture of guilt, faith, and survival. The two girls could not be more different. Marie-Angèle is the grocer's daughter while Jeanne is the daughter of a Jewish mother who washes clothes for a living. The two girls together go to the village convent for their education but come from different ends of the social spectrum. When the German occupation arrives, the two girls' experiences are very different but both are "ignorant" of each others plight and their judgements are repeatedly shown to be wide of the mark. In fact the book could just as well have been titled "Judgement". Just when you think you know one through the eyes of the other, you get the opposite view of things.
If you like a conventional story and plot line, this may not be the book for you. The book's strength is in the lyrical, almost poetic descriptions and time periods jump back and forward. But while lyrical books can be tend towards wordy tomes, this is quite the opposite. The writing is concise and emotive and the result is enthralling.
In particular, at the heart of the book is the way French society dealt with the women who had fraternized with the German soldiers during the war. The judgement of others is always black and white while the truth is often more complicated and everyone was really doing what they needed to get by.
All of Roberts's narrators are female. As well as Jeanne and Marie-Angèle we also hear from Jeanne's daughter Andrée and briefly from one of the nuns. It is this last narration that is perhaps the most unexpected revelation.
While the plotting and characterisation are satisfying, the real quality comes from her descriptions of French village life. In a few short sentences she is able to evoke the textures, smells and fabric of village life. Equally clever is the way that she contrasts how this is seen through the eyes of the two main characters as children and then later as adults. Powerful too is her ability to portray heartache and loss. It would take a cold hearted reader to not be moved by the plight of Jeanne in particular.
It's simply a beautiful piece of writing; in fact, it's tempting to say that "Ignorance" is bliss.
Noel Coward gave some sage, though painful, advice to writers - 'Murder Your Darlings' - this basically meant that when you fall in love with the seductiveness of your own writing, you need to get out that scalpel and cross out pen, and be ruthless. Admittedly, he was referring to witty theatrical bon mots and one-liners that make the playwright laugh themselves to smithereens, but the advice can equally well apply to writers, like Roberts, who write EXTREMELY beautifully, lyrically, poetically, in almost an impressionistic painterly way.
The trap for a writer of poetic, artistic, metaphorical skill is that they become seduced and in love with their magnificent images and word painting, but lose the fireside skill of telling a story - 'Once Upon A Time' which, however beautiful the telling, needs a sense of momentum so that the reader is hooked by 'and what next, and to whom' Character (all characters) must be rounded, and what happens to them, plausible. The author playing god and moving her pieces around should not happen too often.
Unfortunately, Roberts is no murderer.
Yes, this is a beautifully written book, told in several female voices (though all a little too poetic) of what happened to two girls, one assimilated French Jewish, one French Catholic, in wartime Paris. Its a tale of class and aspiration as much as a tale of that terrible time. The Jewish girl comes from a more artistic, intellectual sensibility, though fallen on hard times, the Catholic girl comes from a bourgeois family whose aspirations are material rather than creative.
At times i stopped and savoured the fine quality of Roberts prose :
"This pale green apartment, lined with old wooden armoires and buffets painted pale pink, pale green, pale blue, its rafters hung with wheels of dried apple threaded on strings, had a tiled floor patterned in small turquoise and cream squares"
and Jeanne, again, this time writing about her mother
"I could not let myself feel tender towards her. Instead I felt tender towards the sink, which was something i knew how to deal with. I wiped the white enamel as though it were a child's face. I wriggled a cloth into the ends of the taps and cleaned the green slime from them as though they were a child's nostrils crusted with snot"
Beautiful, precise, visual writing, but there was so very much of this. Sure, it gave me a lot of insight into the central character, Jeanne, and her artistry, but unfortunately the external environment of story itself propelled by other characters, was vague and insubstantial. I particularly felt the men in the story were pushed around like pawns. Some of them, who played a major part in Jeanne's story just did not seem credible, just shadowy ciphers and plot devices. In the end, it seemed literary style (beautiful literary style, but still) had been chosen over narrative and psychological substance.
The final section of the story particularly had me rather screaming with frustration, crying UnBeLievAble!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angele Baudry, both nine years old at the start of this story, grow up together in the village of Ste Madeleine. Jeanne's mother, who converted from Judaism to the Roman Catholic faith, has fallen upon hard times due to the premature death of Jeanne's father, and now has to take in washing to earn her living. Marie-Angele is the daughter of a shopkeeper and both she and her mother, consider themselves to be rather superior to the Nerins, but are keen to do their duty and help the family out by employing Madame Nerin to do the Baudry family washing. When Jeanne and Marie-Angele become temporary boarders at the local convent school, they meet up with the eccentric Jewish artist living next door to the school and, even though they have been forbidden by the nuns to have anything to do with him, the girls manage to gain access to his company and to his large and wonderful old house.
As the girls become older they spend less time with each other and consequently they grow apart, especially when Marie-Angele stays on at school to get enough qualifications to enable her to train as a secretary, and Jeanne leaves as soon as possible and, at fourteen years old, starts working as a maid. And when the Second World War takes hold and France becomes occupied by Hitler's army, their lives change completely; Marie-Angele meets the suave Maurice who hides escaping Jews in her garden shed and supplies her family with 'under the counter' goods, whilst Jeanne suffers wartime deprivations and becomes what Marie-Angele considers to be a woman of loose morals. When the war comes to an end and Marie-Angele has become a self-satisfied wife and mother, she is horrified to see her former friend paraded along the streets and vilified for fraternising with the enemy. However, although Marie-Angele has always aspired to a life of respectability, influence and ease, the reader learns that underneath the surface, Marie-Angele's family life is not quite as it appears, but is ignorance really bliss? There is, of course, a lot more to this story but I shall leave that for prospective readers to discover.
As always, Michele Roberts writes evocatively and lyrically and her beautifully depicted settings help the reader to easily create the scenes of this story in their mind. Her characters are well defined and she excels when writing about the home, giving even simple settings a depth and a glow, especially when contrasting the austerity of the convent house with the richly described interior of the artist's house next door. I found this attractively presented novel to be a very entertaining and enjoyable read - I only wish it had been just a little longer.
This is a typical Michèle Roberts book so if you like her writing this is a good bet. Sensuously written, the story is told through a series of voices: primarily those of Jeanne and Marie-Angèle, two girlhood friends, but including other voices too.
At its heart lie the relationships between these two women, and the judgements they make about each other, however wrong they may be.
Village life in occupied France is well-conveyed, and a claustrophobic sense of bourgeois petty-mindedness.
This is written in lovely prose and is a good example of a type of feminist writing that seeks to recover `lost' female voices - I have to say I admired this book but was never moved to love it.
on 18 January 2013
The synopsis above is rather different to the one which I read on netgalley, and I feel it represents the book much better. I went into the story expecting a story which looked back on war times, and something which had been hidden within that time, some great secret. What I got was the story of two women, childhood friends who had started on a similar path but ended up going in completely different directions.
The war was somewhat of an important factor in the story, however it was only significant in that a major storyline would not have happened outside of the war- there was never any real sense that it was war-time.
Marie-Angèle ended up going to an (arguably) better place, she still seemed to have some care for her old friend, however it came across as charity, or a duty. Marie-Angèle didn't seem to actually care for Jeanne so much as to want to be seen to be caring for her. Jeanne in her turn actually seemed to dislike Marie-Angèle, and I didn't blame her.
You see I didn't like Marie-Angèle the whole way through this book, and that made her chapters a little difficult to read. I found her snobby, fake, and rather conniving. The nearest I can say I came to liking her was that I understood sometimes why she might think what she was doing was right, although she seemed to value her own opinion as being much above others.
Jeanne I ended up liking. We never really know what became of Jeanne, but I hope her life got better.
There were some elements to the story which I didn't really understand the inclusion of. They added little to the plot, apart from fulfilling the promised secret which was not significant to the rest of the story.
Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angèle Baudry grow up in the small French village of Ste Madeleine, where Marie-Angèle as the daughter of the local grocer thinks she is superior to her friend, Jeanne, whose mother, a Jewess, washes clothes for a living. However, the outbreak of WW2 will alter the dynamics, not just of the two girls, but also of the time in which they live.
This is not a story exclusively about war; it is rather more the story of the individual effects of war on a community and as both Jeanne and Marie- Angèle come of age in this troubled time, the consequences of their lives will impact greatly on those around them.
Beautifully descriptive, the detailed exploration of culpability, combined with the starkness of the prose lends an overwhelming seriousness to the narrative, which is as compelling as it is shocking.
A fast-paced plot, a setting that is both horrific and familiar, a mixture of fantasy with traditional religion, and unusual characters dealing with political, economic, and moral issues capture one's attention from the opening pages, as author Michele Roberts keeps the reader moving swiftly through the French countryside from 1931 - 1945. Jeanne Nerin, the daughter of a widowed mother who works as a laundress and housekeeper, and Marie-Angele Baudry, the daughter in the family for whom Jeanne's mother works, are the only two full-time boarders at a convent school, as the story opens. Nine years old, they are there because Jeanne's mother has been hospitalized, leaving Jeanne alone, and leaving Marie-Angele's pregnant mother with no one to do the laundry and heavy work in the Baudry household.
In many ways the two girls represent the dichotomies of their times. Jeanne, whose grandparents were Jewish, feels the anti-Semitism existing in France ten years before the war, even though her mother is a convert to Christianity. Jeanne will do whatever is necessary to survive, including stealing food from the convent, and later taking jobs which demean her. Marie-Angele and her family, for all their superficial religiosity, consider themselves superior because they are wealthier, classic examples of hypocrisy. When Jeanne and Marie-Angele, unsupervised one afternoon, climb over a wall from the convent to the house next door, they are confronted by the hermit who lives there, and they react very differently to the experience. Marie-Angele blames everything on Jeanne. The adults, both at the convent and in their homes, make Jeanne and Marie-Angele promise not to say or do anything about this unfortunate episode - more hypocrisy, which becomes the major theme throughout.
Though Jeanne is the primary narrator, Marie-Angele also narrates some sections, expressing her own version of events. Because the novel's chronology is not linear, the author is able to paint a picture of life from several different vantage points, both in point of view and in time. In the first chapter, told by Jeanne, she and Marie-Angele are age nine. In the second, Marie-Angele, now twenty, is being courted. In successive chapters (as nearly as I can figure the time), Jeanne is thirteen, then a flashforward to Marie-Angele, who is married with seven children, then a flashback to Jeanne at eighteen. Two additional chapters bring the story up to the conclusion of the war. These women have few choices in their lives, and Jeanne, in particular, must do the best she can with what she has. For her, however, honesty is always the rule, no matter how she may have to pay for it; for Marie-Angele, honesty is superfluous. She can always twist events to her own advantage and hide her complicity.
The plot of this novel unwinds obliquely, but the events themselves are presented in simple terms, and the story is not complex. What makes this novel so different from other novels which focus on the same time period, however, is the lush, sensuous language. The madam of a house of ill repute is described as "aging meat, marbled with fat, giving off a whiff of corruption." Jeanne's mother, "in her black dress looked lean as a vanilla pod." War "fell out of the sky." Fast-paced and moving, this novel has all the ingredients necessary for popular success.
on 2 June 2013
Could have been because it was on my Kindle and I really needed to go back and re-read some bits (but couldn't be bothered!), but I found this really heavy going. The end was unsatisfactory and the re-telling of the story by different characters - a device I am usually enthusiastic about - did not seem to work here.
I felt that a lot of the things that were hinted at or described somewhat symbolically would have been better just written about in a more straightforward manner.
I would not look for this author again
This is one of the best books I've read this year. It's a multi layered tale, exploring some very difficult and deeply emotive issues, particularly around attitudes towards and difficulties experienced by Jews in Occupied France. It's a book which defies categorisation into a specific genre, because although there's a 'love interest' it's not a romance. Neither is it a war story; that merely provides the setting for the deeper issues involved.
The story moves forward in chapters which take up the tale from the POV of different, closely connected individuals. It's a narrative device which works very well, giving a slightly different perspective each time. Imogen Robert's prose is exquisite; poetic, lyrical and truly sensuous. The pages are filled with taste, texture, smell and a real feel for life in a rural and myopic French village. The creepy priest 'playing' with the little girls is a particularly haunting image. I loved it and will look for other books by Ms Roberts.