Ignorance, By Michèle Roberts

Occupied France provides the backdrop for a novel of friendship, complicity and courage.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The streets of the village of Ste Madeleine are steep and cobbled, with a château and a school run by nuns perched at the top. Jeanne and Marie-Angele attend the school, playing together but not close friends. Marie-Angele comes from a respectable family, Catholic and middle-class, while Jeanne's mother is a widow who takes in washing. She is also Jewish, a fact widely known even though she has converted to Catholicism.

Michèle Roberts's new novel opens in provincial France just before the Second World War. The girls' ages temporarily obscure the differences between them, allowing Jeanne to take the lead in tempting Marie-Angele into scrapes. "Little Miss Mealy-Mouth, little Miss Preachy, little Miss Prim", she teases when Marie-Angele hangs back, little knowing how true her words will be.

Anti-Semitism is present from the beginning. The different fortunes of the girls are reflected in the locations of their families: Jeanne and her mother live at the bottom of the village, near the smithy, while Marie-Angele's parents own a grocer's shop halfway up the hill. Such gradations assume greater significance when German troops arrive.

Marie-Angele's parents have a key position in the village and soon they're working with Maurice, a black marketeer. Marie-Angele's true character begins to emerge when she finds the cobbler's wife and two of her children hiding in the garden shed, stowed there by Maurice while he acquires forged papers. Marie-Angele demands why Maurice has got involved with "these people" – she means Jews – without giving a thought to the fact that Jeanne is Jewish and as much at risk.

The paths of the two young women diverge radically as the war progresses. In Marie-Angele's eyes, her family is entitled to do whatever it has to in order to survive, and clandestine trips with Maurice to pick up contraband are an opportunity to seduce a man who knows where he's going. Soon Marie-Angele is pregnant, a calculated strategy to get Maurice to marry her, and they're moving into the château whose Jewish owner is in hiding.

Marie-Angele looks down her nose at Jeanne, who has moved to a nearby village where she's rumoured to be working as a prostitute. Marie-Angele has little sympathy when Jeanne returns home unmarried and pregnant – or at the end of the war when women accused of collaboration are paraded through the streets.

Ignorance is a novel about moral choices. It's also about the chances in life that make some people comfortable even as they fail to comprehend their good fortune. Different characters tell the same story, moving backwards and forwards in time. Sometimes Jeanne's voice, with its imaginative flights, sounds more like Roberts's than a young woman of her time. But Marie-Angele's boundless complacency hides a gripping story of fear, arrests and personal tragedy.