There has been a theme doing the rounds of Twitter recently under the hash tag of #thingsnottosaytoawriter.
For anyone who is not conversant with Twitter foibles, a hash tag plus a phrasewithnospaces is something that everyone talking about the same subject adds to the end of their tweet so that all the relevant tweets are collated together. In fact that's probably a rubbish explanation that makes no sense unless you do it...but anyway, there was this hashtag doing the rounds and all the writers were busy telling us what not to say to them.
'I'd write books too if I didn't have a proper job...'
'So when are you going to write something good. Something I've heard of...'
I'm not sure if anyone had quoted 'I've always meant to read your books...' but I decided, in the interests of transparency, to confess to Michèle Roberts, as we met to discuss the Remembering Angela event at Port Eliot, that this was indeed the case between her books and me. And it was true, I had always meant to read Michèle's books and somehow never quite got around to it, and imagine how embarrassing it could have been had Michèle perhaps mentioned something about her own writing and looked to me for elaboration or confirmation.
So I picked up Daughters of the House with my mind focused because I could see there would be a whole line of debate I would be unable to pursue with any honesty until I had at least started to get a feel for Michèle's own writing.
How might Angela Carter have influenced your own writing??
Do you feel indebted to her in any way??
I had read that Michèle Roberts not only loved literary tradition and reading herself back into it, but that she loved inventing new forms too...that writing was about voyaging into the unknown and having adventures, surely a vision shared with Angela Carter. I kept looking up every so often as I read Daughters of the House, just long enough to call myself a dork for having had such a brilliant book sitting on the shelf unread for so long, before quickly checking which other ones I have and ordering those I didn't, and then popping Michèle's oeuvre into the women writers' cabinet which is at my right hand this year.
Out of the questioning mouths of babes, the daughters of the house, come the pieces of the secrets as teenage step-sisters Leonie and Therese, living in France, piece together, jigsaw fashion, quite what the scandal might be...what does the past hold that the adults around them are so keen to keep firmly in the past. Unlike Angela Carter's patchwork imagery about moving from the middle towards the edges, and in keeping with the best way to do a jigsaw, Leonie and Therese find their edges first as they work towards the shame and the betrayal that lies at the heart of this little French community.
The story is told in flashback as Therese, returning from some form of exile, seeks out her cousin Leonie. The exact nature of that absence is slowly revealed but meanwhile had conjured up all sorts of wonderful ambiguities in my mind. There is discomfort and strangeness and all manner of uncertainty as Michèle Roberts slowly and very deliberately unfolds this beautifully constructed novel, keeping me completely immersed in the lives of two young girls whose discoveries about life, death and all that comes in between will not be without a price to be paid. Plenty of secrets and shame but all mediated to the young girls in an oblique way, at a slant and sniffed out by them in the discomfort and strangeness and voices that surround them. There is ambiguity and uncertainty which draws the reader in and with a view from both sides, as the adults try desperately to maintain their control over the past, limiting its infiltration into the present, whilst the girls pick away at the scabs and scars. And when Therese and Leonie realise they may have picked a little too deeply they then somehow try to protect the adults, and you learn a little more about how secrets might be perpetuated by collusion and fear.
The house features large too, cellars storing secrets of their own and bedrooms too terrifying to enter (reminiscent of Bluebeard perhaps) and alongside all this, and in complete contrast, a sheer revelling in colour that I haven't come across in a novel for a long time. Time and again Michèle Roberts conjures up a scene with colour... the tablecloth with a thin turquoise line through blue checks...brown pottery and its silvery glaze, next to red wine, primrose soup plates, shining red pot of soup, the golden glow of candles and I am sitting there waiting to start that meal too. All enough for me to know that Michèle would probably appreciate the little quiltsuke I had made for her, and I think you can see that she did.
Daughters of the House is somehow about the inevitability of history too, and its need to be known, about war time atrocities, and the truth will out... except does it?? A book which, once I knew the ending, I felt I wanted to make time to re-read to spot the clues, tiny little significances that gain importance but which may be glossed over first time around, but which I knew Michèle Robert's had placed in there with care and precision.
I often find there is one line in a book that seems to encapsulate the whole for me and this was it...
'Somewhere a dog was asleep, must not be disturbed...'
As we are finding now with Little Nell, wake the sleeping puppy and that's the next few hours spoken for, but in the case of Daughters of the House, this is about a lifetime. Loved it, and as I said to Michèle, having confessed my late start, be very afraid because now I'm on the case, lots more of Michèle Roberts's writing for me.