Saturday, 22 June 2013

Review: Ignorance

Michele Roberts
Women's Prize Longlist

'The words in my brain could not be squashed. They wriggled and squelched and inched back and forth.'

Reading this was quite the emotional roller coaster. It made me sad, angry, occasionally pleased in that smug kind of way, and generally shocked at the state of humanity. Towards the end it even had me shaking my fist at the sky and shouting 'THE INJUSTICE'! Yes, that happened. 

I read this just before going on holiday and it was on my mind for some time after. It is powerful, painful, ultimately hopeful and one of the characters just made me sick to my stomach. 

Ignorance is set in a small French town before, during and after the Second World War. It mostly involves the occupation of France but actually the war is only a small character in the novel. It is there and necessary but only, I think, to provide context to the exploration of personal relationships. It follows the lives of Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angele Baudry. I would say it is Jeanne's story rather than a joint narrative because she is the victim, the one that the events revolve around. Chapters are told alternately from the point of view of these two characters as they grow from school girls to women and mothers. Occasionally a chapter is narrated by other characters but to say who would spoil it.

I don't want to say too much about Ignorance. It is a short but intricate novel that deals with some difficult issues through an examination of the lives of Jeanne and Angele Baudry. It is significant that it is a dual narrative because it is through that that the extent of the 'ignorance' is exposed. There is one scene which is narrated from the point of view of both chapters at different times which really makes you stop and question the truth of everything you've already read. It's a powerful novel that can do that. It blew my socks off more than once.

The most powerful and distressing scene for me was the parade of French women who had slept with the German occupiers. I have seen this done in other novels and in films but Roberts really hit me hard. After the occupation had ended all the women who had 'betrayed' France by sleeping with Germans were shaved and paraded through towns and cities. Humiliated, basically. There is something about the way it is described in Ignorance that really made me think 'you bastards'. Was that the intended effect? I don't know but that was definitely my reaction (this is where the fist shaking came in).

Oh, but the language! It's like poetry. Dense, rich, lyrical, emotive...I could go on but I won't. Put it this way, it packs a punch and hits you real hard.

This is not a lenient novel. It doesn't hold back from exposing the realities of occupation and the lengths people will go to survive and get ahead. It is brutal and frustrating but the language is oh so beautiful and the story so incredibly powerful that I would recommend it to anyone. I got it from the library but I will be buying this one, if only to re-read it in order to soak up the language.

'The city flared around me. As though the bus were a knife, tearing into flesh.'

I would love to hear any of your thoughts on Ignorance if you've read it...



  1. I have to admit that I had written this book off when I saw it on the long list for the women's prize for fiction this year. I thought 'not another WW2 book set in Europe.' The cover didn't exactly help! But from your review, it looks like I was completely wrong!

    1. I had that thought too at first but I can't resist war books. No matter how many I've read! I think the cover was poorly chosen actually, I don't really see how it is relevant. It really isn't like the impression it gives, I promise :)

  2. I haven't read this but it's obvious from your review that I must! I have a good feeling about this one and I've put it on my wishlist! Thanks El!

    1. No problem! It's one to enjoy for the language as much as the story which definitely makes it a must read in my opinion.

  3. This book was already "to be" for me, but now it has just cemented its position. Beautiful language, questionabilities in narrative is just my kind of thing. Thanks for the review :)

    1. They are my thing too and this book has both in abundance. You are very welcome :D


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