The 19th-century novel, that great critic Tony Tanner once observed, deals with adultery. We have since had the novel embodying the search for origins and its anxiety: how can I be sure my father is my father? Set on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, Catherine Texier's story of a married woman's quest for adventure is inflected with contemporary concerns for nostalgia and exoticism. It begins with a love affair, and ends with the birth of a child.
The novel comes out of a gap, Texier tells us, in her own background. She knew that her ancestor, Victorine, had run away from home in France to what the French colonialists called Indochina, leaving no trace in family history apart from murmured gossip, or the thundering silence of outraged provincials. Texier set herself to reimagine that woman's crisis.
Texier places her heroine's quandary within the parameters of family genealogy. This narrows her scope but makes for a crisply told, rattling good tale. Victorine grows up in the Vendée in north-west France. She is enchanted by the ocean, by its far perspectives, and by the handsome boy, Antoine, she meets on the beach, with his determination to make his fortune in the colonies. When he disappears, she marries her worthy suitor Armand, a schoolteacher like her. They produce two children, settle in their familiar landscape of green fields, canals, the ever-present sea.
Texier beautifully evokes the textures of daily life, the rituals of cooking and cleaning, the objects inside the house which now shape Victorine's horizons. The sensuality of this naming is not merely decorative. It forces us to recognise the materiality of Victorine's life (all that dusting every day), as well as her bourgeois aspirations. Listing her possessions, however, palls, as does her teaching job.
Antoine reappears, and after rapturous secret sex, Victorine agrees to travel with him to south-east Asia. Our culture labels women who leave their children as monsters. In Texier's hands, the monster metamorphoses into an ardent lover whose sexual curiosity meshes with a need for travel. So off they go, the two conspirators, to Saigon, to their new life: exotic sights and sounds; opium; a final separation. In these days of sophisticated post-colonial writing, however, it is disappointing to see Indochina rendered - however exquisitely - as merely the backdrop to two white people's love affair.
Michèle Roberts's novel 'The Mistressclass' is published by ViragoReuse content