Prize lists always seem to throw up a couple of writers I’ve never heard of before and this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist is no exception. The first of these is Michèle Roberts. When I did a bit of research about her, I was amazed I hadn’t come across her before – she’s written 13 novels, as well as plays, poems, short stories and two non-fiction books. She was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992 with Daughters of the House.
The detail that I seem to have picked up on about Ignorance is that it’s set in WWII and it involves hiding Jews. I hit a point some years ago now when I wondered how many more stories there were to tell about the war. I’m sure that sounds callous to people who lived through it and there will be many individual stories that have never been heard but as a fictional setting it’s been done and done and done again. So, I came to Ignorance wondering how dull it could be and how quickly I could get through it.
I read it in a day. Not because it’s dull because it’s brilliant.
Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angèle Baudry grow up in the town of Ste-Madeleine. At the age of nine they become borders in the local convent school. Jeanne because her mother has been taken into hospital; Marie-Angèle because now Jeanne’s mother is unable to do the Baudry family’s washing, Marie-Angèle’s pregnant mother has found herself unable to cope.
Half rates for the Baudrys, because they were such good Catholics. I [Jeanne] went free. Marie-Angèle had spelled it out: you’re a charity child, other people have to pay your fees. I retorted: but my father was an educated man. Unlike yours!
Anti-Semitism runs through the novel, as you might expect. When Madame Baudry sees Jeanne looking at Monsieur Jacquotet, the Jewish painter who lives next to the convent, she says:
They know how to manage those Jews. We let them in, we let them have jobs. And now, the money that they’ve got squirreled away!
My nose was running. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief. Maman had no money. Had she ever been a proper Jew?
Jeanne’s mother converted to Catholicism after the death of her husband (Jeanne’s father), sponsored by Madame Bawdry. It seems that she, along with Jeanne, wishes to hide in plain sight, as it were, rather than becoming one of the many Jews we see hidden in sheds and attics later in the book.
The book moves swiftly through Jeanne and Marie-Angèle’s childhood to their early teens. At this point, Marie-Angèle takes over the narration and we are introduced to her father’s friend Maurice. Maurice obtains black market goods and the Baudry’s sell them under the counter in their shop. Marie-Angèle becomes enamoured with him:
He began to take me with him on his business trips to collect food. Throughout that spring of 1942 we worked together. Time began to exist for me again: no longer uncountable weeks of endless war but precise moments of intense life. I marked our outings in my exercise book; precious afternoons whose dates I wanted to encircle in gold. We were heroes, hoodwinking the Germans.
During the war, both girls make naïve choices that will change the course of the rest of their lives.
Rather than being about hiding Jews during WWII, Ignorance is really about women – their relationship with each other and how their circumstances and any choices they might make from their position in life affect their relationships. It’s about class and status and how one person might ignore events while another will be forced into drastic action because of them.
Ignorance is not only a fascinating book, it’s a beautifully written one. Roberts often uses a layering effect where she builds up phrases to create images and emotions:
A chisel drove into my belly, twisted its point round. Tearing flesh. Spill of blood and guts. I wanted to howl, hold in the chisel. Gouged inside, chisel twisting to and fro like polka music.
A technique she uses repeatedly and effectively while still maintaining distinct voices for several different narrators. I’m in awe.
Goodness knows how I’ve missed Michèle Roberts until now. I’m predicting her for the Women’s Prize Shortlist and I’ll be getting my hands on everything she’s written.