BOOK REVIEW / Stories mummy never taught me: 'During Mother's Absence' - Michele Roberts: Virago, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a dark and witty book. And if to be political means that systems of order and power are interrogated and stood on their head, then it is a political book as well. But it is not a tract, and for good reason. Tract- writers and polemicists have every faith in argument, but little enough in the imagination. For Michele Roberts, imagination is the cutting tool she uses to rearrange perceptions of sexuality and pleasure, of customary relations and received values. As the nine stories in this collection unfold and then fold back into each other, a shifting array of meanings is laid out. How you look at them depends on who you are: there are, after all, political readers as well as political writers.

Take 'Anger', the first story. Like the others, everything in it is inflected by the half-magic, half-grotesque ethos of the fairy- tale - Grimm rather than Andersen. The narrative occurs in a French village, within a simple community, fixed - as fable requires - between wonder and fear. Bertrande, a stranger to the village, gets pregnant after several years and gives birth to a daughter, Melusine. The baby, in sinister circumstances, falls into the fire and is scarred.

At this point credibility may seem likely to be strained. And there is worse to come. Melusine grows up and marries her teacher, who already knows her strange and terrible affliction - the fact that every month bright red hair grows down her chest, is shaved away and grows again.

To say more would spoil the story. But it is not a story of Melusine and Bertrande so much as of our own prejudices, our expectations not just of narrative but of its approved content. Despite her title, Michele Roberts's central theme is the authority of the mother's presence, which we demand as nurture, but which may also be danger and disorder. Taking motherhood as a societal inscription, to be radicalised and rewritten, is all of a piece with the author's ambitious use of the predictable music of allegory and fable to subvert our sense of the expected.

Her style is bleak, clear and determined. In using fables throughout, she makes it plain - and the reader becomes a more and more essential part of this argument - that certain forms are communally written. And then she invites the reader to unwrite them. It is a daring and demanding project, one that makes for exciting reading. .

But there are problems, too. She is a purposeful and eloquent stylist. Only a writer of real clear-sightedness could have kept such a balanced design throughout the book. She never slips into harangue, or slides into grievance. Nevertheless, she is not quite purposeful enough to prevent some of these stories from appearing reactive, rather than innovative.

There is an important debate around the subject of how women writers confront the sexual and the erotic. Michele Roberts addresses this - but briefly and in a staccato way - in 'Taking It Easy', where a mother deliberates about food, sex and language. It should have been one of the central stories in the collection, a crossroads where theme and form meet, and become one with Roberts's ambitious voice. Instead, the narrative wanders off into self-conscious ironies. And just for one perilous moment - to use an image from fable - the whole project looks too big for its boots.

(Photograph omitted)

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