Ignorance and beauty

I found out today that one of my favourite writers, Michèle Roberts, has a new book coming out next month. This is excellent news. It always seems like years between Michèle Roberts books, but her last one, Mud, was published only two years ago. So, May sees the publication of Ignorance, the first six pages of which are available on the Look Inside facility at amazon. And I am reminded once again why she has been one of my favourite writers since I was at university in the early 1990s.

Back then, The Wild Girl (now republished as The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene) was on our reading list. Oh, thinks I, a book about Christianity. Hmm, well, I have to read it, so I’ll give it a go. Once I started reading, however, I couldn’t put it down. It was so beautifully written, not remotely preachy (the writer describes herself as a lapsed Catholic, a heretic), told in the simple language of Saint Mary Magdalene. It recounts the story of Jesus from her perspective, making explicit suggestions that the Bible kept (I assume deliberately) implicit. That Mary was the first disciple and indeed married Jesus (the whole anointing the feet with the hair thing was apparently a wedding ceremony; and if you were going to rise from the grave, who’s the first person you’d show yourself to?).

I devoured this book then and it has remained in my consciousness ever since. I subsequently went out and bought all of her books, apart from two poetry books that were out of print (again, thanks amazon – I’ll be revisiting you soon). Right from her beginnings as a struggling feminist (are her books feminist? I’d hesitate before saying yes) when she wrote A Piece of the Night, I was hooked. So when I find out she has a new book  out, I do a little happy dance, because I know I’m in for a good read.

What she writes isn’t always easy to digest. She tackles some heavy themes (being a woman, religion, Catholic suppression of women, sex – the big questions when one is brought up with religious parents). But the writing itself is truly exquisite and, having read the first few pages of her new book, I frankly can’t wait to read the rest.

But this brings up weird feelings in me as a writer. I met her once at the Hay Festival of Literature, way back. When I told her I was writing a book, she said, and I quote, ‘Don’t give up.’ My writing at that time was terrible – though the plot was OK – but I have followed her advice and have continued on my quest to produce ever more flowing prose. (I think I’m getting there.) So reading the first few pages of Ignorance produced in me a mixture of feelings: awe, first off, because her talent never fails to blow my socks off; envy – the writing really is beautiful; and the sense that I’ll probably never write anything that’s anywhere near that level of excellence.

She’s been categorised as a ‘women’s writer’. I’m not sure how she feels about this, but I find it a bit strange. Why should it only be women who would enjoy her books? And not all women would. Some women like reading about girly things. However much Michèle Roberts focuses on the relationships between girls and women, sisters and cousins, mothers and mothers-in-law, this is definitely not girly enough to be classed as chick lit (thank fuck), and I think to call it simply ‘women’s fiction’ is lazy and rather missing the point. This is beauty for its own sake. And what’s wrong with that? And why can’t men enjoy it, too?

One thing I’ve always found rather sad is that hardly anyone seems to know who she is. I’ve only met a couple of people in my life who’ve heard of her. This is a great shame, because it means a lot of people are missing out on some of the best writing there is to be found. It’s all very well publishers focusing on what will sell truckloads – and I have nothing against people reading anything, really, so long as they’re reading – but there’s a quality here that most people simply don’t see. Is that the fault of her publicist? Probably not. It’s more likely to be something to do with the way the system works. If it’ll sell shed loads, publishers will buy it. I know Michèle has been with the same publishers for some years and has an excellent agent, but the trend in book advertising seems to concentrate on crime and thrillers. Again, nothing wrong with either of those genres, but there is so much more out there that may never be discovered because it’s hidden away behind bigger, brighter, shinier models.

So this is my attempt to make more people aware of the beautiful writing of Michèle Roberts. Go get one of her books, fetch a glass of wine, turn down the lighting and lose yourself in a kaleidoscope of words. It’s a spiritual experience. One that you’d be mad to deny yourself. Let Michèle Roberts lead you by the hand into her world of Ignorance and beauty.

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