Book Review

Article excerpt

MICHELE ROBERTS is still busy sorting through her inventory of inherited themes and dreams - the bundles of fictional stuff bequeathed by a half-French, half-English family line, her lapsed Catholic's born-again paganism, and the legacies of her fictional foremothers Woolf and Colette. Flesh and Blood has a strong savour of Orlando about it - that is, of Woolf at her most flirtatious, bold and Colette-ish, since it's a book whose shaping metaphors are those of dressing up, cross-dressing and drag, and whose creative centre and secret space seems to be "the inside of my mother's wardrobe".

So there's immediately a seductive sensation of regression about the writing - back to the delights of lists, words as things, the musty perfume of lavender bags and camphor:

"Four dozen chemises, George recited; two camisoles in coloured wool, two chintz bodices, one feast-day bonnet in cloth of silver, six coifs, six caps, two cloaks and two mantles, two red and three blue skirts, ten muslin fichus, twelve pairs of drawers. All that's to last her the rest of her life. What have you got in your trousseau . . .?"

George, who is a painter in trousers in France in the 1880s, but who started (it turns out) as Georgina back in England, sets something of the tone. Every character has two chances in this book, for although it begins with a nest of stories reaching back in time, one inside the other - "I'm not their real child you know . . . They just found me when they were out walking one day, it was like this . . . " - it then goes into reverse, and gives every story a reprise. Two tricks for the price of one. The first half is mostly about rejecting your family, seeking your fortune, a young woman's entrance into the world in different eras. And the second half produces each tale's double, the folded-over ending or alternative version that untwists the fates of Freddy, George, Eugenie, Rosa, Federigo, Cherubina and company. And these are tales about being two and seeing double: tales told against the grain of the notion of One Truth, particularly the kind the Church preached.

Two was always, according to the old numerologists, a number of bad omen, the beginning of endless division and multiplicity. It's been argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented in order to pre-empt the evil lurking in twoness, to close off a process that threatened to bring the old gods of polytheism back. Or more particularly the goddesses. The story of Sister Bona is the key here. She takes to running her convent as a shrine to Motherhood:

"The Abbess held out her hands with the bits of relics in them. …