Book Shelf: Ignorance by Michèle Roberts - review

Book Shelf: Ignorance by Michèle Roberts
By Brooke Lehmann

Author of twelve highly acclaimed novels, including Booker prize shortlisted, Daughters of the House, Michèle Roberts has raised the bar yet again with her newest addition, Ignorance (Bloomsbury). The English-French authoress' prolific career, including poetry and plays, continues to display itself in her new work, her linguistic flare exhibited on each page.

The story is set in France, pre, midst and post-war, and revolves around two young girls, Marie-Angèle Baudry and Jeanne Nérin, from very different backgrounds – one from the upper class and the other the lower – who attend the same convent school. It follows their journeys as they find their respective lives meshed together by circumstance.

Told from the perspective of several others, the poetic and elegiac tone marvels in another one of Roberts' works. Depicting the lives of people in a small French provincial village, Roberts stands out from the crowd by focusing on the lives of French men and women, not exclusively Jewish, but affected drastically by the war and its raw consequences (hunger, horror, inhumanity) all the same.

Roberts paints her story with careful consideration, often floating in and out of the narrative into bleakly fanciful descriptions of emotions and settings alike, just as the setting oscillates between the two towns of Ste-Marie-du-Ciel and Ste-Madeleine: its respective cornerstones the convent and the brothel, the juxtaposition of Gallic virtue and vice – given over to the sharp contradictions of the human condition – are brought to the fore.

Her obscure yet profound articulation of human suffering and human nature is at times crass and frank (several brazen and confronting scenes in a bordello are not for the faint of heart), however, there is a begrudging validity to the foundation the scenes set.

An intriguing account of class warfare is also displayed, elucidating a new and almost foreign element into the greater-war scenario. Roberts' portrayal of the constant and tenuous line walked by all during World War II, grounds the reader and forms a new understanding of the delicate and grievous situation the world was plummeted into in the mid 20th century.

Roberts' incontrovertible talent and flair is entwined throughout the duration of the novel; her unique storytelling to be defined as nothing short of art. A book that deserves to be read with deep consideration, Ignorance could be a novel to change your way of thinking.