May 12, 2013

Novel set in WWII France doesn’t hold together

“Ignorance” by Michele Roberts (Bloomsbury, 231 pages, $25) 

“Ignorance” by Michele Roberts (Bloomsbury, 231 pages, $25)

 War has a thousand stories, and many – most, one could argue – don’t have to do with the battlefield. The stories that make the newspaper are the big ones, but everyday people trying to get on with their everyday lives often have far more complicated stories to tell.

It’s these people who are at the center of Michele Roberts’ novel “Ignorance” – residents of a village in France during the Second World War, trying to get by while food is rationed, winters are cold, and German soldiers inhabit their streets.

Jeanne and Marie-Angele are classmates at Catholic school, but they’re not really friends and they’re certainly not peers. Jeanne’s mother does laundry and mending for Marie-Angele’s mother, who runs a grocery with her husband. The disparity between their family situations — as Jeanne puts it, “she had too much of everything and I didn’t have enough”— prevents the girls from getting to be close, and influences their choices as they grow from schoolgirls into women.

Jeanne’s mother was born Jewish, but changed her surname from Nerinsky to Nerin and poses as Catholic. Roberts gives us this information somewhat matter-of-factly but never explores Madame Nerin’s character. Not that every novel set during World War II has to focus on the treatment of Jews – and “Ignorance” certainly doesn’t ignore what’s going on, as one character covertly helps people escape and others are turned out of their homes and businesses – but this seems to be an interesting angle that is brought up and then just dropped.

It would be great to be able to give more of a summary of what the book is about, but there’s not a lot of plot. The book jumps around, back and forth in time and among multiple narrators. We get Jeanne’s point of view first and most often; we also hear from Marie-Angele, Sister Dolly from the school, and Jeanne’s illegitimate daughter. Instead of this giving a fuller picture of events, though, it results in a choppy storyline with large chunks missing, and the ending feels disjointed and too pat.

Roberts’s writing creates vivid images: words “hopped across the pages like toads,” the scent of early spring is “a bitter green perfume sharp as a chisel,” a locked front door “a slap in the face, a slap to the heart.” But ultimately, this novel doesn’t hold together: It’s like flipping through a stack of old pictures – some beautiful, some horrifying, some simply descriptive – that are cryptically labeled and out of order.

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