HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 March 2013
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.