Note: Although I have not put true plot spoilers in this review, it is more detailed than some might prefer to read. For that reason, I have marked it as containing spoilers.
Two girls from a French village during World War II are reluctant friends when they briefly become the only two boarding students at the local convent. Jeanne Nérin's widowed mother, an impoverished cleaner and washerwoman, is a convert from Judaism, but she remains a Jew in the eyes of the villagers, and Jeanne is treated suspiciously by the nuns and most of the neighbors.
Marie-Angèle Baudry's father is a grocer, and her mother puts the petty in petit bourgeois. Madame Baudry congratulates herself on her generosity, but criticizes and gossips about the objects of her charity, especially Jeanne and her mother. To Marie-Angèle, Mme. Baudry speaks in a stream of cautionary adages as if they will propitiate some angry god.
The story is told largely from the points of view of Jeanne and Marie-Angèle. In flashes, as if through half-closed curtains, we see the girls' paths diverge. Marie-Angèle, sheeplike, follows her mother, grasping for security and possessions. She creates a mythology of rectitude about her life; choosing to believe that her husband, Maurice, is simply an employee at the town hall who earns enough to pay for his elegant cashmere coat and the gifts of gold jewelry he brings to her and her parents.
Jeanne's ancestry and poverty limit her options in an already-difficult wartime economy and she becomes a servant in a brothel in the next town. There, she meets Marie-Angèle's husband, obviously a black marketeer, and learns of the price he exacts on those he claims to help.
"Ignorance" is the perfect title for this tale illustrating many forms of ignorance––including willful ignorance––and the irrevocable harm that can result from it.
The ignorance of young girls about sex, which makes them prey for those who would exploit them; the ignorance and prejudice of the villagers about Jews, which makes it easier for them to ignore what happens to their Jewish neighbors under the Nazi occupation; the villagers turning a blind eye to the real price of luxury items in the World War II black market; and the willful ignorance of a wife about who her husband really is and what he does.
Of course, Michèle Roberts is writing about all of France, not just one village, in this novel. There are no graphically violent scenes in the book, but it is full of brutality and fear. Nobody talks about the neighbors who are disappearing around them. Nearly all are more than willing to compromise everything, including their humanity, for their own material gain. The occupying Germans are little more than an excuse for the residents to become predators.
Roberts's writing style is economical and blunt, yet also sensuous and lyrical. She makes the reader feel the dreariness of the war years: how the cold and wet raise chilblains; the smell of people who go unwashed in the cold, unheated rooms; the combination of revulsion and ravenousness over soup made from moldy potatoes or cabbage; the thrill and shame, pain and pleasure of sex and childbirth. Characters deal with a too-brutal reality by seeing events and themselves in fantastical, fairy-tale terms; flying above themselves and watching from the ceiling, turning into a mythical beast who can lash out and demolish a foe. Roberts's writing sometimes turns from the fantastical to the everyday, but with the same searing effect:
"Eggs inside eggs. Take one mother and one daughter, crack them, separate them, don't let them touch, beat them in their separate bowls, whip them well. Take also one young man and one young woman, add one future mother-in-law, mis well, stir well, season with bitterness and despair, when the mixture curdles add the milk of human kindness, the yeast of doggedness, leave it to rise for as long as necessary, punch it back down, take the resulting story with a good pinch of salt.
Take as many Jews as you like, crack them whip them beat them put into the oven turn on the gas wait until they're well crisped throw into the rubbish pit take another batch start again."
I only wish Roberts had limited her storytellers to Jeanne and Marie-Angèle, rather than having a couple of (short) chapters told by other characters. Those other chapters didn't add much to the book, but more of Jeanne's and Marie-Angèle's stories would have.
This is a difficult and painful book, but the reader is rewarded by the richness of the writing and the flickering, hopeful spark of humanity that persists in spite of everything.
Disclosure: I received a free publisher's review copy, in ebook form.