BOOK REVIEW / Visions of the kitchen sink: 'Daughters of the House' - Michele Roberts: Virago, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THE HOUSE is haunted: its 'daughters', Therese and Leonie (cousins, but looking 'more like sisters') know that something, or someone, is buried in the cellar. There are forbidden places, shuffling steps outside the bedroom door, voices in the night that 'cried out, chanted and moaned' in a language impossible to understand.

Michele Roberts has always made use of myths and metaphors for the unconscious. Here her fine Gothic bravura gives a powerful sense of fear and violence, as what has been repressed or concealed in the childhood of these daughters - and in the history of the place - erupts through the house: 'History was voices that came alive and shouted.'

But the house is also a good, well-stocked, Normandy home. The book ingeniously takes the form of an inventory, each short chapter headed by a solid functional object: 'The Fish Kettle', 'The Washing Up Bowl'. The narrative is rich with real, fleshly things: thick skin being skimmed off a saucepan of milk, 'two dark primrose soup plates in their thick porcelain with wide fluted edges', a chandelier of metal twisted into pale green leaves. Everything is fully seen, like the French cemetery with the porcelain books and roses and 'thick slabs of storm granite' over the neat rows of quietly rotting corpses.

Body and soul, food and fasting, red and white are opposed. Housewife Leonie's inventory of real things clashes with Therese's conventual litany of prayers. So this remarkable and beautifully written novel is at once a ghost story, a tale of visions and miracles, a painful physical remembering of female adolescence, and a specific local reconstruction of post-war France.

Michele Roberts had a French mother (like Leonie, whose Anglo-French confusions are eloquently described) and a Catholic education. A previous novel, The Wild Girl, subversively rewrote the story of Mary Magdalene. This book derives from the biography of St Therese of Lisieux. It uses the saint's bourgeois Normandy home, her peasant foster-mother Ruth Taille, her mother's early death from cancer, her widowed father's doting on his 'little queen', her childhood sightings of the Virgin Mary, bossily appropriated by the Carmelite nuns. But Roberts has disrupted those pious legends.

lt is the cross, worldly Leonie who has the vision of a figure in red, speaking a 'language she once knew but had forgotten about'. But the pious Therese turns it into an 'authorised version' of a white Madonna, and uses it to charm the Bishop into approving her religious vocation. And the shrine in the woods, site of that primal, sensual, forgotten female language, becomes the locus for a violent and sinister village wartime history.

There is a great deal of pain and anger, focused especially on the loss of mothers: foster- mother, 'real' mother, visionary mother. The dominant tone, though, is of a visceral, ebullient gusto for life: 'She swore to herself that when she grew up she would not wait so long between courses . . . She would talk loudly and everyone would have to listen to her or they'd get no food. She would never be ill and she would live to a very old age.'

Michele Roberts's previous work - novels, stories, plays, poems - has not had its due. She has been sidelined as an experimental feminist, up against (as she once fictionally, and wrily, described it) the voices of 'the outraged nun, the hurt relatives, the mocking male reviewer, the male militant, the correct feminist'. Daughters of the House, her best book yet, should change that.

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