BOOK REVIEW / Fingerlicking delights: Flesh and blood - Michele Roberts: Virago, pounds 14.99
Saturday 24 September 1994
The relationship of mothers and daughters crops up repeatedly in Michele Roberts' work. Alongside this preoccupation lies her fascination with doubleness and the possibility of otherness. That territory is also explored in the enjoyable, prize-winning Daughters of the House where two cousins from either side of the channel discover they are really twins.
In Flesh and Blood characters are allowed to experience the alternative, mainly in terms of gender. There's the androgynous narrator, Fred, who may (or may not) become Freddy; an English painter George who turns out later to be a Georgina; and a Federigo and his sister Bona, both of dubious sexual orientation.
It's not so much outlandish as Orlando-ish with the narrative spiralling from the present day to the 16th century and back again. The book is divided into two halves, with its centre a gauche poem:
we is one whole undivided
you/me broken now mended
you/me restored mama bebe
our body of love picked up put back together . . .
Each tale sets up the next, each chapter bleeding into the following by never quite ending. And the echoes throughout the book are like threads binding seemingly unrelated stories to each other.
We have lavish listings of the clothes which make up a French peasant's trousseau (camisoles, bonnets, mantles) echoed in the London housewife's wardrobe (coiled narrow belts with gold buckles, racks of high-heeled shoes, fresh ironed cotton, cold fur).
The shrine to Our Lady made by Freddy contains her mother's earwax, nail clippings and dried snot - as heretical, perhaps, as the subversive acts of Bona hauled up before the inquisition. 'She . . . held the broken bits of relics in her hands . . . She said that these were the body of our Mother. . . . The Abbess bared her breast. She said: this is my body, which was broken and given for you, and this is my blood . . . Then each of the nuns came forward and kissed the Abbess's breast, and let her mouth rest there, as though she was an infant being nursed by her mother.'
Roberts is often compared to Colette with her attention to detail and the senses. And it's here her strength lies, in making the domestic lyrical. From rustic hovel to grand chateau, women bathe, powder, launder, iron, cook. Rooms smell 'of resins, of burnt pine branches', while armoires stuffed with linen betray a hint of rosemary. Food - cold veal with clotted jelly and mayonnaise 'thick and glossily yellow' - is mouthwateringly described, enough to make you lick the grease from your fingers.
But, rich though it is, Flesh and Blood fails to engage emotionally. And where exactly is it going? This novel never needs to end. It could veer backwards and forwards forever in different configurations between the chicken-liver tarts and spiced mostarda. The reader is left feeling overfed but strangely undernourished.
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