Book - 2012
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In every war there are stories that do not surface, that are locked away like bluebottles in drawers and kept silent. You can make yourself forget if you try. But sometimes the past can return- in the smell of carbolic soap, in whispers darting through a village after mass, in the colour of an undelivered letter.
Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angele Baudry grow up side by side in the Catholic village of Ste Madeleine, but their worlds could not be more different. Marie-Angele is the daughter of the grocer, inflated with ideas of her own piety and rightful place in society. Jeanne's mother washes clothes for a living. She used to be a Jew until this became too dangerous. Jeanne does not think twice about stealing food when she is hungry, or about grasping the slender chances life throws at her. Marie-Angele does not grasp; she aspires to a life of comfort and influence.
When war falls out of the sky, the forces that divide the two girls threaten to overwhelm those that bind them together. They must grow up in a hurry, think on their feet, play their part, turn a blind eye, even barter what is valuable to them. In this dizzying new order, widowed hermits, moustachioed lovers and corseted madams look different from every angle, and the truth can be buried under a pyramid of recriminations.
Michele Roberts's new novel is a mesmerising exploration of guilt, faith, desire and judgment, bringing to life a people at war in a way that is at once lyrical and shocking.
Publisher: London : Bloomsbury, 2012.
ISBN: 9781408816004
Branch Call Number: FIC Rober
Characteristics: 231 pages


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Dec 19, 2013

When people are deprived of something, particularly food, they cannot stop thinking about it. It haunts them. Scents of cooking follow them. They zone in on it at the expense of other things. While Roberts' novel is not about starvation, it is about deprivation, not only of food, but also of beauty and love. Hence, when Jeanne Nerin is lucky enough to obtain any one of these things, they loom larger than life in her narrative. The cheese sandwich that Bernie offers her aboard the ferry to London is likely the first bite of cheese that Jeanne has had in some time. We, too, can taste that sandwich, with its "thick yellow slice of cheese, yellowish bread" that she bites into and devours before doing the same to the second sandwich that Bernie proffers. When Jeanne turned thirteen earlier in the novel, her mother insisted on a meager celebration, and after consulting the sole cookbook (itself later described as a bible), _I Want to Cook_ by Brigitte Marisot, Jeanne and her mother decide on _Delicieuses_, as her mother had managed that day to procure two hen's eggs. "Snowy beaten egg whites folded with grated Gruyere and quickly deep-fried to become fat puffs" that Jeanne ate greedily: "Salt and hot oil on my lips, the billowy cushion of egg white melting to wateriness on my tongue," she recalls.

While other voices make up this novel, it is Jeanne's that is most important. Her ability to focus on those things that are often denied her and make them larger than life when she fortunately happens upon them or contrives to get a hold of them, help hold off the bleak, frightening realities of surviving as a Jew in Occupied France. Along with making much of food, Jeanne makes much of color, in part because her friend and one-time lover, Monsieur Jacquotet not only draws and paints the young Jeanne, but teaches her to draw as well, allowing her a way to express her fear, sorrows, pining, sacrifices, risks, and never-ending hunger.

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