Beatitude and the beast

Is it possible to be both holy and sexy at once? Michele Roberts thinks so; Cath Stowers talks to her about saints and sinners in her new novel
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Michele Roberts is one of Britain's most exciting novelists, yet until a few years ago she was often sidelined as a feminist writer. Her 1993 novel, Daughters of the House, brought her into the mainstream, and was shortlisted for the Booker. Roberts was herself a Booker judge in 1995, and her work appears on university syllabuses. Popular with general readers, she is also one of the stars of academia, with theses on her writing proliferating every year.

Roberts's latest novel, Impossible Saints, opens in the "Golden House", a store-house of the bones of "women with no identities". Houses are a common motif in Roberts' fiction: "I have a sense of the house as this material body that can feel quite frightening and quite longed for ... you need to go back to that house, and hopefully when you're there you explore it, like Gothic novels. To me, it's a place you go into and out of, into and out of."

This to-ing and fro-ing is central to her writing. In her first novel, A Piece Of The Night, she discovered that "the form of the book could be one step forwards, two steps back, one step forwards, two steps back, and that you could actually have the journeying happening in the form, rather than just, you know, describing it in a linear way."

Impossible Saints is a book about women who, straying from the strictures of patriarchy, are left unwritten in history. The story of Josephine (loosely inspired by the life of Saint Teresa of Avila) is foregrounded, interspersed with tales of Saint Petronilla, Saint Thecla, Saint Agnes and Saint Dympna: women resurrected in all their cunning, sexual, corporeal glory.

Michele Roberts identifies Impossible Saints as her "final attempt at exorcism", her clearest understanding of what Catholicism did to her as a child. She questions what defines goodness in the contemporary world, and considers how a person could be a saint now. For "women in the church's path, the idea of goodness was bound up with the non-sexual". Roberts investigates why this was so and considers the repercussions for modern women. Although in the past, sexuality was viewed as "getting in the way of holiness", Impossible Saints asks whether "it can be different".

Feminism is still clearly the driving force of her writing. She is interested in questions not just of gender, but of race and sexuality. "I know the difference is very important, as a political person who's grown up in the women's movement and had to tackle, you know, the racism of white women, including my own." The acknowledgement of the privileges of whiteness have been partly prompted by her reading and admiration of Toni Morrison. And although now happily settled with her husband of nine years, Roberts still characterises her writing further as being "about loving women". She is adamant that she shouldn't be seen as "on a different side from lesbian women. It hurts me if I'm put in that place. I resist it, whether it comes from gay or straight women. I will not be put as somehow opposite to women-loving-women."

Toni Morrison's work also made Michele Roberts see "that myth and metaphor are at the heart of people's experience and therefore can be at the heart of how you write about them ... you don't have to use realism". The tales which make up the novel resonate with myth and magic, features of her writing which have been increasing, particularly since her 1993 collection of stories During Mother's Absence.

Severance and dismemberment are major themes in the new novel, too: the body of Josephine is hacked to pieces by both priest and pilgrim who, hungry for holiness, take bites from her corpse. But this novel carries out a repairing, a reassembling, of Josephine's body, enacting her niece Isabel's salvaging of her aunt. "I invent her. I reassemble her from jigsaw bits and pieces of writing; from scattered parts. I make her up. She rises anew in my words, in my story. Mended; put back together and restored ..."

This is an apt description of the narrative of Impossible Saints which, as so often with this writer, is a whole made of parts, and spirals backwards from its opening scene in the bone house. In this sense, she continues the project of her earlier Flesh and Blood. There she felt "because I was writing about a broken relationship between a mother and daughter, the book had to be broken, so that you experienced breakage through reading, not just through hearing about it - then you could also experience putting it back together again. For me, every novel has to embody the theme in its form. I don't believe you just write a novel and say it's all in the subject-matter. I think you've got to do it through form: I'm a modernist in that respect."

Roberts's fiction calls on readers to do some work, and Impossible Saints coaxes us on, offering clues. "I love reading thrillers and they seem to me a form which calls for an active reader. You're supposed to be the detective."

This, like her other works, is a novel full of wandering women: there is Thecla who "ran away leaving no address and seeking none", Petronella who "ran off ... vanished down the road", and Eustochium who "went off travelling and was never seen in those parts again". Michele Roberts places herself firmly in the "migratory age": "Because my mother was a migrant - she moved from France to England, and I spent my childhood moving between the two - it is the basic fact of life for me, to be a migrant. And yet, I'm a privileged one. It's only in later life that I've felt comfortable with being in transition between cultures, religions, sexualities, parents, languages. And it's through writing books that I've developed a place where I belong, which is under the sea, basically. I live in the Channel Tunnel. I've discovered that is my home!"

Masculinity has never been absent from Roberts's writing, though this is her first book to tackle father-daughter relationships, the forbidden, bordering on incestuous, pleasures and pains of daughterly devotion. The daughter's desire for the father here results in rejection, and daughters are locked in convents (Josephine), in wells (Thais), in bath-houses (Barbara) and in towers (Christine). But daughters can dismember, too. Christine flings her bitten-off tongue at her father before escaping from her prison tower by cutting off her own manacled hands and those of her companions. Uncumber bites off her father's abusing penis before fleeing from his palace.

Michele Roberts's enthusiasm for women's writing, feminism and writing in general, are inspirational, and the loving attention paid to language makes Impossible Saints richly rewarding, and reaffirms Michele Roberts's position as one of Britain's best novelists. Many of the hallmarks of her writing are here: the sensual imagery, the motifs of houses, madonnas, pilgrimages and food. At the same time, the shifting of focus from mother- daughter relationships to the often unwritten dynamics between fathers and daughters suggest fascinating future directions for her writing.

`Impossible Saints' is published by Little, Brown at pounds 14.99