BOOK REVIEW / Endless baguettes: During mother's absence - Michele Roberts: Virago pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE numerous indications that the short story is not Michele Roberts's

preferred form. Most telling is that almost all of the pieces in this collection are the result of commissions; but even if they were not, many would still be marked by an uneasiness with what is possibly the most difficult of genres. Even some of the finest stories are marred by awkward narrative pacing or inadequate shaping, or by a sense that short fiction is simply that, shorter but no different in rhythm from the longer stuff.

Not so, however, with 'Taking It Easy', a deft confection which does move emphatically like a story, and which marries some of Roberts's most strongly recurring themes in a revealing way: issues of creativity (or the spirit) versus the material and an exploration of the meaning of France for Roberts. It also stands out, along with 'Laundry', the one new piece in the book, for its sense of humour. 'Taking It Easy' is told by a short story writer who produces on demand (not unlike Roberts, in fact) and who is suffering from writer's block: 'my science fiction pieces I signed Alexis K Triffel. For the women's magazine market I was Dorothy Appleday . . . Melodramas, another much-maligned genre, were back in fashion: I wrote them as Valda Prykke.'

But what it best illustrates is the extent to which France is, for Roberts, the territory of the imagination, a world of material (largely culinary) comforts that spur the creative impulses and soothe anxiety. When the story's narrator dons a silk nightdress and stuffs herself with croissants and Camembert while lying in bed, inspiration cannot fail to visit her - in human form.

France is a land of escape, of fairy-tale, too: it is no mistake that Roberts's fabular pieces ('Anger', or 'The Bishop's Lunch', or even 'Laundry') take place in French villages, or convents, or forests. This is not merely a tribute to a French literary tradition which has more time for fables (think of George Sand); it is also born of a notion of France as the place of childhood sanctuary, of innocence.

In 'God's House', a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother spends a week in a rented house in Southern France, where she is able to pretend that her mother is still alive: 'I'd believed for a whole week that it was my house, my garden . . . the garden had seemed to know me, had taken me in without fuss. Leaving it, going outside and not coming back, would be like having my skin peeled off . . . The worst thing was feeling so lonely, and knowing I always would.'

Given that France is the land of Roberts's childhood, its sentimentalised and nostalgic presence in her work is perhaps inevitable. But while it clearly serves her imaginative purposes, France need not be so limited and frustrating a place, too easily evoked by nuns and endless baguettes and cups of strong coffee.

The most powerful piece in the book is not - despite their success - a fabular one. It is, rather, the last in the collection 'Une Glossaire / A Glossary', in which Roberts examines directly what France means to her, as a country of family, of history, or ritual and of childhood delight; but also as a place of ageing and decay, of ruthless conservatism, of loss. The emotional power of this country-made-whole illuminates the partiality of its significance in the other pieces in the collection, and makes a reader long to experience elsewhere the full force of Roberts's imaginative wellspring.