November 10th, 2011

fairytale horse

A Piece of the Night -- Michele Roberts

A Piece of the Night is the story of Julie Fanchot, who is raising her young daughter with her lover in a communal lesbian household, as tenants of Julie’s ex-husband. When she returns to her native France to nurse her ailing mother, she has to reconcile her French Catholic heritage with her new radical politics.

Published in 1979, this is an astounding first novel. It took me a long time to read it (because many of the themes are near the knuckle for me), but it’s a novel worth savoring. Roberts is a master stylist, and knows how to use style to create a powerful effect in the reader. It’s not light reading: complex and intricately structured, the narrative shifts between omniscient 3rd person and 1st-person stream-of-conciousness without warning. It’s beautiful, though, and vigorous. It’s a novel about breakdown: of the family, of marriages, of religious faith, of mental stability. Julie is a complicated protagonist, not always likable. I appreciated Robert’s frank honesty about her heroine. Julie is interrogating her past, trying to understand how religion and patriarchy have shaped her life. She is full of rage, confusion, neediness, loneliness, and insecurity. The cover art of my copy captures the central conflict perfectly: an ironic reinterpretation of Bartolome Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, with red-haired, labrys-wearing, blue-jean-clad Julie as the blessed virgin dyke, ascending  into her own power and grace (and a sky full of  frolicing cherub babies).

I do have two main critiques: there’s a rape scene right at the beginning of the novel, and while it’s very effective, it’s never addressed later in the novel.  Maybe that’s Robert’s point, but it does feel kind of awkward, like Chekov’s gun that’s never fired. I kept expecting it to be revisted, and it never was. Secondly, the novel slips a bit into the Fantasy Ending that so much contemporary lesbian literature and film indulges in. I didn’t find it entirely convincing. I’m not saying we can’t have happy endings, but I do think it’s interesting that there are so few examples of realistic ones. But the novel as a whole is so impressive that those critiques didn’t really affect my enjoyment of it. It deserves far more attention in my opinion.