This is a delicious book, to be savoured mouthful by mouthful like caviar – or perhaps as a child comes to know the world, by stuffing every object we encounter into our mouths. For that is how these stories work. Black suede shoes "look good enough to eat"; a handful of moist earth or the rich, squidgy mud itself demands to be relished intensely by all senses .
There is nothing predictable about the plots. Michèle Roberts understands the far from innocent attachments of childhood. She enters Colette's biography as her mother's youngest darling at 11, enjoying the way her hair is brushed with ceremony, thern rushing off as a tomboy to kiss her first love. And she is at her poignant best as a maid who fell in love with Emma Bovary as a laughing girl with black ringlets, and continues to see her ghost.
Several times Roberts invites us to imagine ourselves at the periphery of a well-known Victorian classic, for instance as a servant in the house of Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester, observing the governess and watching Adele make friends with the mad woman in the attic. She can be cruelly funny at the expense of a male companion who refuses to learn French, and leaves her to explain his vegetarian principles when they move to France. Some stories are more enigmatic. In "Flâneuse", Polly, a woman who has left her husband, soothes herself by walking round London. One evening, she arranges to meet William, a charismatic (sadly, married) lecturer at the Opera House. He doesn't turn up, and she has to watch the unhappy drama alone. As she emerges, laced inexplicably now in the corsets of the stage world, she finds the streets too are those of an earlier century, reeking of "sour sweat, tallow grease... and steaming heaps of horse shit." Revellers take her for a whore, and an ageing one at that.
There are worse pains than being let down by a man. In another story, Maud has taken a plane to Venice in the wild hope of escaping the knowledge of Death. But that monster is not fooled so easily. Even as she takes a sleeping pill from its silver dimpled strip "a baby begins howling out of sight. No, the baby caws and bellows inside Maud. Maud's the baby".
Courageously, Roberts has opened up the cupboard of memory, and "the cloths and sheets fly up and with a life of their own, burst into the room". We are engulfed by these stories, and in them we remember our own lives.
Elaine Feinstein's new poetry collection, 'Cities', is published by CarcanetReuse content