Daughters of the House is written by Michele Roberts and published in paperback in 1993.
It was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize and won the WH Smith Literary Award the same year. I had not read it before but I am on a bit of a mission to read as many Booker Prize shortlisted novels as I possibly can so I thought I’d get one in early in the year.
Set in Normandy in a grand house on the edge of a village, post-Second World War, cousins Therese and Leonie find a broken shrine in the woods near their home and weave fantasies which unwittingly bring to the surface secrets the villagers have hidden away.
The opening and closing of the book finds the cousins 20 years later as they confront the aftermath of those secrets. The middle of the book switches to their teenage years when their lives begin to unravel.
If the intrigue surrounding the secrets of the village is not enough to draw you in (and it was quite enough to pique my interest), then the prose really should.
It is beautifully lyrical, conjuring life in the Normandy countryside eloquently.
It opens with Therese returning to her family home after 20 years in a convent and Leonie taking an inventory of the items in that home, worried that Therese is going to want to take possession of it even though Leonie has lived there since childhood and raised her family there. Each chapter heading is an item on Leonie’s list of household goods.
Through stepping into the past, the complicated relationship between the two girls, their respective parents and the servants and villagers is revealed, as is provincial French Catholicism and what the villagers endured – and was hidden – during the Second World War.
But what is the truth and what is fantasy? Those lines are blurred.
The prose is so evocative it’s almost musical and the characters so intricately drawn that I found my allegiance switching back and forth between the two protagonist’s. Even now I am unsure who I feel the most empathy with.
It is quite subtle, the plot is gently teased out rather than being a page-turner but it really is beautifully written.
I enjoyed it very much and shall be looking for more of Roberts’ work to enjoy.