Published by Bloomsbury
Publication date: May 10th 2012
In a small Catholic village in Occupied France, Jeanne and Marie-Angèle attend the local convent school. From the beginning they are distinctly different girls from their backgrounds to their current family life. Marie- Angèle is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the local grocer while Jeanne is a small, dark and intense girl whose mother has been reduced to cleaning houses and doing laundry. Ignorance by Michèle Roberts follows them through their lives as they separate and intersect. We read about each from her own perspective and later are introduced to two more characters, Dolly, a nun at the convent, and Andrée, Jeanne’s daughter.
Ignorance is difficult in that there is no one character to ally with. The actions of each, as explained from their point-of-view, evoke the confusion that arises in times of turmoil, making each complex and contradictory. The easiest to dislike is the smug and sanctimonious Marie- Angèle, who believes herself to be good only because she has never been faced with real hardship. She grows into a woman very sure of her beliefs, her place in the world, and her kindness to others.
I felt sorry for the Jews, having to start again in a new country and work in factories, but I felt just as sorry for the Frenchmen who’d be taken away to the labour camps…we couldn’t stop the Germans organising things in their own way. We weren’t in charge. We had to survive.
For Jeanne life is more complicated. She and her mother are left penniless when her father dies and so her mother goes out as a cleaning woman to earn a living. Eventually her health suffers and Jeanne is parceled out to a convent for her education. This is feasible only because her mother converted to Catholicism from Judaism but as the war approaches this distinction fades. When she is old enough, she too enters the world of service, working as a house maid, until she ends up at the local bordello. She continues cleaning but as the world around her narrows she understands that the greatest invisibility may come from moving amongst the enemy so she becomes an escort. Later she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter shortly before the war ends. When it does she is still to be despised.
They’d seized her and shaved off all her hair so that they could parade her, part of the procession of tarts, let everyone know she’d been with Germans. Baldness her sign of betrayal, her badge of shame. She was a repulsive sight…
Andrée never knows her mother because Marie- Angèle intervenes and Jeanne is sent to a convent in London while Andrée is given to the nuns to raise. There she creates a vivid story of her life as a counterpoint to the drudgery she endures once she is old enough to work. On the outside, she moves slowly, with a simmering resentment, but inside her world is populated with vividly colored imaginary characters and lives.
In the same way that while there may be a victor to war there is never any real winner, there are no clear cut heroes and villains in Ignorance. Each kindness on the surface hides a cruel streak underneath and the pettiest façade may mask a hero.
Hide him in the house of your friendship. Your fragile house. We were as small as mice, ants, birds. We tried to hide them in our houses woven of straw, our houses of feathers, our house of twigs. The Germans saw through our walls and could smash them any time they liked. Just one blow of a fist. They’d do it deliberately, as a punishment. Coldly. Not losing control.
This makes for discomfiting reading and means Ignorance is not a book that gives a sense of completion. Mothers and daughters separated, lives destroyed, and judgment and recrimination abound. This parade of questions and displacement of lives is the natural result of war and Roberts stays true to that fact. As we follow these characters, each trying to define their own reality, we see that there will be no answers. There can never be enough answers.