|Daughters of the House / Michèle Roberts|
London: Virago, 1993, c1992.
I picked up this slim novel from my shelves when I was in the mood for a book about a house -- you know the kind, centred in a big house and all its things, with generations moving through it but the house staying still. I usually find these set in England but this one is set in the French countryside, and so also involves both Catholicism and Nazis during the war.
The author is British and French, so she really understands both sides of this story from her own experience. There are two girls as the main characters in this novel; Therèse, born and raised in the house in Normandy, and her cousin Léonie, who is half English and lives there for much of her childhood, only visiting in summers. But at a certain point Léonie and her mother end up staying in Normandy, and the cousins' relationship is the key to this story.
As the book opens, Léonie is an adult, living in the House with her husband and children -- her mother has just died and so Léonie is inventorying the belongings, since Therèse will be coming home from the convent in which she's spent much of her adult life, to claim her inheritance as well.
Each chapter is titled for one of the items in the house -- The Writing Table, The Soap Dish, The Green Scarf, and so on -- and each one sparks a short chapter on the memories associated with it, as they relate to Therèse and Léonie's childhoods and the events that shaped them, including the deep secrets of both their family and the wider village in wartime.
It's a brief book, with short chapters that uncover the experiences of these two young girls in a large house where rooms are forbidden, where there is a secret, neglected shrine in the woods that moves events toward a shocking conclusion, where they are trying to figure out the actions of the adult world around them. The writing is elegant, and the construction of the book sometimes takes precedence over the plot, such as it is. The two main characters are both engaging and slightly off-putting; their childhood actions have long-standing effects that the adults they become (and whom we meet in the opening and closing chapters) are still coming to terms with.
For such a small book, there is a lot here. While the plot is slow moving and inconclusive at times, the moments from the past that are highlighted are strong with emotional resonance and imagery and there is a sense of the uncanny about the shrine and some of the forbidden rooms -- are there ghosts and voices there? It was a strange little book that I found rich and interesting.