BOOK REVIEW / Fingerlicking delights: Flesh and blood - Michele Roberts: Virago, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
MOTHERS are many in Flesh and Blood. They may be absent physically or emotionally, they may be murdered, absconding, indifferent or 'in bed, indisposed'. As the novel progresses they are shown in a more positive light. One finds a lost daughter in a freak show; another saves hers, an abbess, from the Inquisition; a third begins as a daughter but looks forward in the last chapter to her own motherhood. 'This is a love song for my daughter not yet born, who swims inside me dreaming unborn dreams, my flesh and blood.'

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.