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Suddenly Last Summer

THE LOOKING GLASS A Novel By Michele Roberts; Henry Holt: 304 pp., $23

July 22, 2001|KAI MARISTED | Kai Maristed is the author of "Belong to Me."

Genevieve, a foundling raised in provincial confinement by strict nuns, savored her first taste of freedom at 16. As she rode in a farmer's cart toward an arranged future as domestic maid, her "eyes seized on everything: the swaying rump of the horse just in front of me and the strip of leather harness confining its black tail, the crows flapping and cawing above the furrowed earth, the stinging green of hawthorn hedges, the shimmer of bluebells, like stretches of blue water, in the long grass beyond." Dropped at a crossroads, she watched the "cartwheels tilting as they ground along."

"Then I shook straw from my skirts, and straightened my wind-buffeted cap .... The whole landscape blinked and winked as the sun darted out of the skidding clouds. The patch of blue sky that appeared meant, I was convinced, good luck. I picked up my box and started off toward Blessetot."

It is only right to introduce "The Looking Glass," the hypnotically sensuous new novel by prize-winning English-French author Michele Roberts, in its assured, image-rich language. This early passage hints at many of the pleasures to come: certainly the reverent eye for workaday objects, the Matisse-Monet-like brush-loads of color and the writer's deft establishment of a time (early last century, before the age of the automobile) through precise telling details rather than ham-fisted declaration. All of which adds up to a palpable immediacy, an intimacy not usually associated with historical fiction.

"Her sympathy lurked underneath, and she would measure it out carefully ... like putting a spoonful of eau de vie into coffee to give you courage on a cold morning." These early scenes are deceptively conventional: shades of Bernanos, Mauriac. Genevieve's new employer is Madame Patin, bistro keeper and no-nonsense widow of a fisherman. Soon the orphan has shucked off her piety; she prowls by the rough sea, discovers a knack for baking rissoles and turning a sou and catches the eye of Madame's traveling-salesman fiance.

Aha, one thinks, another girl-to-woman bildungsroman, and Genevieve's early experiences fit the mold, although they are shot through with a physicality reminiscent of Marguerite Duras and rather short on dramatic event--like a life. Well, but does Genevieve fall in love? Of course, although not with a man. It is Madame she craves, with the fierce passion of a child, nearly grown, who never had the chance to be one. And Frederic, Madame's fiance, who blocks her from the sunlight, will force her to betray her love.

Just as the high point of Genevieve's transgression and shame is reached--all captured in the ornate mirror of Madame's barroom--her tale breaks off. A new and quite different voice chimes in, that of self-satisfied young Millicent, English governess in the household of gentleman-poet Gerard, his snobbish mother and preternaturally well-behaved little niece. In passing, Millicent mentions the servant, Genevieve, "a very simple character" whose company Gerard unaccountably seems to enjoy.

The structure of "The Looking Glass" is shifting, fluid. In succeeding sections, various women reveal their lives within the tale woven around Genevieve. Often she appears merely as a background figure. Eventually five distinct voices overlap, like the scales of the deadly, lovesick mermaid of Madame's folk tales, who haunted Genevieve's dreams as monster and alter ego.

"The Looking Glass" weaves a pattern more exciting than the standard tic-tac-toe of plot. Similarly, Roberts' characters at first meeting are unabashedly "types": the dreamy orphan, the practical widow, the handsome gold-digger, joined later by the poet's pretty, pleasure-addicted mistress (dressmaker to the family Flaubert, in a wry little twist), but Roberts explores these apparently familiar figures tenderly, respectfully and deeply, mining the archetypes for their inherent life.

In the course of that search, some threads of narrative are left dangling. On the other hand, connections come clear; motives rise through layers of the past with the grace of revelation. For a reader to close a book with the sense of "Yes, so this is why, and this is the only way it could have been!" is one of fiction's deepest rewards. It is almost consolation for having to say adieu to Normandy and "the sea endlessly writing its life into ours," in the last summer of innocence, 1914.

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