BOOK REVIEW / Saints and duellists: 'Daughters of the House' - Michele Roberts: Virago, 14.99 pounds

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'DID SAINTS ever bat their eyelids and look sleepily self-satisfied as cats?' So muses Leonie at the beginning of Michele Roberts's sixth novel, which is now on the Booker shortlist. At the time, Leonie is watching Therese wooing the worldly Bishop and his nasty cure. She is persuading them that she is a mystic given to visions and trances, and she looks, thinks Leonie, like a sort of holy pig.

'Leonie thought men were stupid to be so easily taken in. Look flutteringly at them, pout with all your maidenly charm, above all don't say a word, and they were yours.' The reward, for Therese, is the chance to go early to the convent, to spend 20 years as an enclosed nun, to be universally admired as the holy one to whom Our Lady has appeared. Leonie gets the house.

Michele Roberts is half French, half English. Daughters of the House revolves around these two girls, probably cousins, possibly twins, who spend their summers together in a small manor house in Normandy. Therese believes herself to be wholly French, Leonie is told that her father was an English journalist killed in the war; but nobody can be quite sure. From the start, there is a mystery about what precisely happened in the cavernous cellars below the house just before they were born, and why a particular bedroom is filled with terror.

Against this background, the children play games of make-believe, heavily charged with eroticism and self-sacrifice. In one, Therese is an ascetic hermit reading the paper in a pigsty and resisting the wiles of the temptress Leonie in swimsuit, plastic mac and fluffy pink mules. Meanwhile, the plot unravels gradually and enticingly. A red high-heeled shoe is found in the cellar, a grave in the churchyard is desecrated and daubed with swastikas, a biscuit-tin full of explosive letters, sent long ago to a Carmelite aunt, sits ticking away in the ornate buffet. Every time one of the girls gets near the truth, she is bustled out, dismissed by the guilty adults who alone know what really happened. To be grown-up, they learn, is to keep secrets.

There are several wonderful things about this book. One is the food. Though Leonie, with grim loyalty, extols the kippers and Eccles cakes she enjoyed in England, there is no doubt that the French win in the kitchen. Creamy Norman dishes - oeufs soubises and gateau a la peau de laine - are created lovingly by the knowing Victorine as the lucky girls wait to lick the bowl. The setting, too, is distinctively French. By the end, the reader knows every corner of the elegant old house. Its contents are given extra importance by being used individually to head each short chapter: The Night Light, The Silver Cake-Tray, The Fish-Kettle, The Quimper Dish. Its residents are unmistakably bourgeois French, with their haughty xenophobia and insistence on public formality to disguise private despair.

But the writing is English at its very best. Strong active verbs dictate the momentum: 'Pain woke and stirred inside Therese'; 'Hunger growled inside her like a dog'; 'Grief had swung at him and given him two red eyes'; 'Anger prickled between them'. Describing the passionate jealousy and resentment between the two girls, the prose pulses with a sense of dangerous energy only just held in check. 'Wicked', explains Leonie, can mean 'sharp' in English: and there are no blunt instruments in this book. 'Her mind bristled with knives. She imagined the edge of the blade, silvery and saw-toothed. Its tip vanishing into Therese's soft flesh'. Pinking shears, potato-peelers and long sharp pins are all toyed with as possible weapons, but eventually the adolescent duellists choose the tried and trusted daggers of sex and religion.

Michele Roberts was inspired by the story of St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, to create her own Therese Martin and they share many features, particularly a modest desire not to show how holy they are. But the Saint's image is untarnished by this fictional namesake who, intoxicated by the power of her famous sanctity, finds herself having to live out a very large lie. Leonie, labouring always under a sense of injustice, settles for an earthier existence, but neither is the outright winner. The story builds to a cataclysmic crisis when the two, now middle-aged, confront each other with the deceit and hypocrisy of the past. It is a compelling ending to an incisive and brilliant novel.