So there's immediately a seductive sensation of regression about the writing - back to the delights of lists, words as things, the musty perfume of lavender bags and camphor:
'Four dozen chemises, George recited; two camisoles in coloured wool, two chintz bodices, one feast-day bonnet in cloth of silver, six coifs, six caps, two cloaks and two mantles, two red and three blue skirts, ten muslin fichus, twelve pairs of drawers. All that's to last her the rest of her life. What have you got in your trousseau . . .?'
George, who is a painter in trousers in France in the 1880s, but who started (it turns out) as Georgina back in England, sets something of the tone. Every character has two chances in this book, for although it begins with a nest of stories reaching back in time, one inside the other - 'I'm not their real child you know . . . They just found me when they were out walking one day, it was like this . . . ' - it then goes into reverse, and gives every story a reprise. Two tricks for the price of one. The first half is mostly about rejecting your family, seeking your fortune, a young woman's entrance into the world in different eras. And the second half produces each tale's double, the folded-over ending or alternative version that untwists the fates of Freddy, George, Eugenie, Rosa, Federigo, Cherubina and company. And these are tales about being two and seeing double: tales told against the grain of the notion of One Truth, particularly the kind the Church preached.
Two was always, according to the old numerologists, a number of bad omen, the beginning of endless division and multiplicity. It's been argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented in order to pre-empt the evil lurking in twoness, to close off a process that threatened to bring the old gods of polytheism back. Or more particularly the goddesses. The story of Sister Bona is the key here. She takes to running her convent as a shrine to Motherhood:
'The Abbess held out her hands with the bits of relics in them. She said: 'I am the body of love. I am the garden, walled and enclosed, in which you flourish, and I am the earth that holds you when you die. I am the body to which you are reborn, the garden where you grow again.' The Abbess bared her breasts. She said: this is my body . . .'
There are forking paths for the reader here. You could take this generous but overwhelming woman as rather too much of an inversion of the patriarchal, sacrificial God she sets out to replace, one for one. However, as I read it, this is travesty - the Abbess, we're told 'was very fond of acting and dressing up', a taste she shares with the priests of the straight Church (and one of the
few promising things about them in Michele Roberts's book). Bodies are like clothes here - 'Clothes and skin . . . Can you remember the sound of ripping silk? . . . Did the child Georgina imagine lifting off her mother's skin, wrapping herself in it . . .?'
In any case, Sister Bona's story is not quite the centrepiece of the book. The paradise lost you arrive at in the middle, the hinge-story, is at once seductive and absurd, a vision where the deity is replaced by a Firbankian black masseuse who speaks in the voice of 'ANON', a jokey patois parody of inarticulate, prepatriarchal jouissance: 'On your blissful skin tbe hands of the masseuse . . . trace love messages for your shut eyes to read; . . . we is one whole undivided? You/me broken note mended . . .' Expelled from this womb you encounter one of the book's most accomplished pieces, an allegory of the foundations of culture featuring a brothel and a library. This time, a tribute to Calvino.
Echoes, rewritings, doublings, pastiche are part of the argument - the literary version of dressing up. Michele Roberts rewrites herself too: this is a stronger and much more persuasively structured revamping of her last, Daughters of the House, going further back into her obsessive materials. But is she too impressionable, too much the writer-as-reader? Colette, Carter, Calvino (plus Woolf) are all powerful presences, and the cross-dressing theme, too, has a perilous timeliness about it, very much the fashion of our fin de siecle. For me, she pulls it off, because of what I suppose - if you stick to the book's metaphors - you'd have to think of as a set of 'bones' on the outside, like those of classic corsets: that is, the shapeliness and ingenuity of the narrative ideas. The whole performance has a near-irresistible charm, which is inseparable from its borrowed plumes.