I'm glad she's dead. She had to die. She took too long dying. I'm glad she's dead.
The house was very still. It listened to her. It was making up its mind what to reply.
Although it was nominated for the Booker Prize, Michèle Roberts' delicately unsettling Daughters of the House (1992) was not a book I'd heard of when I picked it up off a bookshop shelf a few years back. I bought it partly, I confess, out of curiosity about the author rather than the book; Roberts once taught Jo, (occasional) fellow Alexandrian, on a Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Still, it was a gamble that paid off; while I often find contemporary literary fiction a bit of a chore (as I've noted here before), Roberts' resonant themes and skilful narrative knife-twisting made this a novel to luxuriate in.
It begins with a marvellously descriptive opening passage (which reminded me quite strongly of White is for Witching, although of course Roberts' novel came first) of a family home in Normandy:
It was a changeable house. Sometimes it felt safe as a church, and sometimes it shivered then cracked apart.
A sloping blue slate roof held it down. Turrets at the four corners wore pointed blue hats. The many eyes of the house were blinded by white shutters.
What bounded the house was skin. A wall of gristle a soldier could tear open with his bare hands. Antoinette laughed. She was buried in the cellar under a heap of sand. Her mouth was stuffed full of torn-up letters and broken glass but she was tunnelling her way out like a mole. Her mouth bled from the corners. She laughed a gutteral laugh, a Nazi laugh.
I love this sense of the house as something alive, something barely contained that has to be "held down" by its roof, and "bounded" by the body and the memory of an old occupant. "Safe as a church" is, re-reading this passage in light of what happens later in the novel, a rather ambiguous phrase. The shuttered windows as blinded eyes is a wonderfully creepy image, again giving this house a (looming omnious) personality of its own, and leading into the second part of the opening, which introduces our first viewpoint character - a woman who has convinced herself to not see, and thus to forget, so many of the layers of painful memory in the house:
The house was strict. The rules indicated the forbidden places. Chief of these was the bedroom at the back on the first floor, at the top of the kitchen stairs.
The rules said you musn't go there. It was for your own protection. Each time Léonie tried she had to halt. The terror was so strong. It pushed her away, wouldn't let her come near. Behind the terror was something evil which stank and wanted to fix her in its embrace. Better to flee, to clatter back across the bare plank floor of the landing, find the headlong stairs and fall down them. Better to stay at the front of the house.
If you're getting the impression that Léonie might be a touch unstable, you'd be right; although we later learn that she lives in this house with her husband and two daughters, I found it hard to imagine how any sort of domesticity worked in her life, given that almost any time we see her in the narrative's present, she is alone, secretive, and thinking obsessive thoughts. And when I say obsessive, I mean disturbingly violent:
Léonie was waiting for Thérèse to arrive. She longed for her, like a lover. Her mind bristled with knives. She imagined the edge of the blade, silvery and saw-toothed. Its tip vanishing into Thérèse's soft flesh.
Again, I like this - the fond misdirection of "like a lover" leading into the "bristle" and sharpness of violence, before we swing back into the softness of (vulnerable) flesh. This is an unsettled mind. As she waits for Thérèse, these images intensify. Léonie looking at herself in the mirror and having a flash of disorientation ("Which of us is which?") has an air of predictability to it - it probably won't surprise you to learn that there is a photo from when the pair were girls in which their faces are "a smiling blur", impossible to tell apart - but again Roberts, I'm pleased to say, proved to have wrongfooted me:
For twenty years she had cohabited peacefully with her reflection, peering at it to check she'd got what she thought she'd got. Yes, she existed, the mirror told her over those years: with her smooth surface, fresh gilding, only a little tarnish. Now that other one was turning up, to disrupt her steady gaze.
When she looked at Thérèse, what would she see? She supposed they had both aged. If she smashed her fist into Thérèse's face, would she hear the crack and splinter of glass? She wondered whether Thérèse's sheltered life had kept her looking young. When they were both sixteen she had been pleased to make comparisons. She had better legs than Thérèse, a sharper clothes sense, a more fashionably slender body. When Thérèse arrived she would be able to carry on that old war.
The mirror is not (just) a convenient prop, but something that has fed Léonie's obsession for years. For both women, physical appearance and the body are central to self-identity and insecurity - especially, but not only, with regards to how they related to each other. And, again, there's the carefully jarring use of violence to jolt me out of what seems to be a familiar trope. When Thérèse arrives, her first sight of Léonie is as "a woman with angry eyes under a shining fringe", peering out of the house at her; then Thérèse, too, reopens the body-image war, measuring her own "lean stomach, flat hips" against Léonie's more generous physique, and watching Léonie mop her plate with bread while reflecting that her own body "obey[s] her now".
It comes as little surprise to learn that the two girls shared a difficult adolescence together, in Normandy during and after the Second World War: Thérèse as a resident of the house, Léonie as a regular guest there (a reversal of the situation in the story's present). The novel follows the unravelling of the house's secrets as the pair meet again for the first time in some years, and each is irresistibly led to recall episodes from the claustrophobic village world of their youth. The key event is the long, slow death from cancer of Thérèse's mother, Antoinette, which leaves the two girls with considerable mental and emotional scars. Much of the story is essentially a study of how they respond to the grief, body-horror and pious terror that Antoinette's dying awakes in them - a process mirrored, although in their youth the girls barely realise it, by the efforts of the whole village to come to terms with (or, more commonly, deny) the suffering of the German occupation.
I don't want to discuss the nature of either the house's or the village's secrets in too much detail; instead, I'd like to finish with a few words on the religious atmosphere of, and the nature of religious observance in, the wartime and post-war village. An intense - and often non-conformist - religiosity pervades the layers of the story, and shapes the way that the villagers understand events. Both Thérèse and Léonie offer private prayers regularly and fervently - Thérèse, notably but not exclusively, for fear that her recently dead mother has gone to purgatory - and their emotional disturbance over Antoinette's death and the oppressive, furtive air that replaces her finds expression in a series of visions of a woman in red, out in the forest.
Word spreads, and - for reasons she does not fully understand until many years later - a popular folk-religious notoriety comes to attach itself to Thérèse. There are night dances in the woodland; it cannot, of course, be allowed to last. Older men, sources of traditional authority, are distant, absent or adverserial figures in the story. Thérèse's father certainly offers no comfort to his bereaved daughter, for example, and when Léonie has her first period, it falls on Thérèse to show her what to do, and how to destroy the evidence of this burgeoning womanhood (together they burn makeshift sanitary towels after use, and then present themselves for dinner, scrubbed clean and carefully innocent: "Proper jeunes filles. Which meant having secrets").
The parish curate is no exception to this rule. Instead of seeking to heal the communal distress bubbling up through this fledgling cult, the curate greets this challenge to his authority with the great stomping foot of Patriarchy - rousing Thérèse to rage:
The theme of the sermon was reverence and obedience. Waywardness of certain elements of the youth in the parish. Authority of our Holy Mother the Church vested in me. [...] Undesirable elements of individualism and mysticism, undesirable attempts at originality, to be weeded out. Adolescent frailty and need of guidance. Saint Paul and Saint Augustine on women.
Thérèse sweated with shame. She stared at her lap where her hands, gloved in tight white net, gripped her missal. If she pressed very hard then her mouth would not open to scream. Torrents of fire would not tumble out to force fire down his throat, torch his tongue. She was red and liquid and dangerous. She would damage that priestly flesh, oh yes, scorch it, she would tear his head very slowly from his neck and laugh as the blood gushed. She would shut him up, trample him down, stop up his mouth forever with hot red mud.
Again, there is a compelling and instructive contrast between the passive obedience expected of young women towards male authority figures - even when such a male authority figure has, it transpires, made a mockery of his moral standing through his collaboration with the German authorities during the war - and the visceral, cathartic violence that this particular young woman imagines inflicting upon him. A heady, disconcerting story.