Food, sex and religion have long formed the trinity of concerns at the heart of Michèle Roberts's fiction. In this latest book, a companion piece to her 1992 Booker shortlisted novel, Daughters of the House, the author returns to provincial France with tale of wartime betrayal and personal tragedy.
The town of Ste-Marie-du-Ciel, built on a "dumpy" hill, has a chateau and a convent perched at its summit. It's here that school girls Marie-Angele Baudry and Jeanne Neri first become friends. While Marie-Angele comes from a family of prosperous Catholic grocers, Jeanne's mother is a widowed washerwoman known to have Jewish roots. Wary of one another's social status, the two newcomers bond over their love of fairy tales, spending their days re-enacting scenes from Bluebeard and Hansel and Gretel.
But then the Nazis march into town and the two girls' lives take different paths. Marie-Angele's parents become involved with glamorous black-marketeer, Maurice Blanchard. The man of the moment, he uses his charms to get his hands on petrol, chocolate drops and butter. He also wins the affections of the ever-pliant Marie-Angele. Meanwhile Jeanne decamps to the nearby town of Ste-Madeleine where she works as a housemaid in the local brothel.
In a novel rich in moral ambiguities, Roberts's compliant citroyens are soon implicated in the kind of horrors that Jeanne recognizes from her childhood reading. Maurice in particular embodies the contradictions to be found in both towns, at one point risking all to hide a family of Jewish refugees, at another fleecing them of their savings. When both young women end the war as mothers, the fates meted out to them are poles apart.
Despite the underlying brutalities of the narrative, fans of Roberts's work will relish a return visit to the joys of Gallic rural life. As ever, her descriptions of meals and interiors pass by as a series of beautiful still lifes.
In this poetic and measured work, Roberts once more hits out at bourgeois smuggery and religious righteousness.
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