Friday, September 02, 2016

The Visitation, the epitome of '80s English feminist literature

It's been a while since I did a book review. Not that I ever stop actually reading books; I'd be lost without a book or two on the go.
I've gradually been accumulating the oeuvre of British feminist author Michèle Roberts over the last thirty years, "gradually" because I buy almost all my books second-hand, and Michèle Roberts is not an author one encounters often in Canadian bookstores (I know I could just go to Amazon and pick up the whole back-catalogue in one fell swoop, but where's the fun in that?)
Anyway? I'm currently reading The Visitation, which dates from the early '80s, but is largely set in a '60s and '70s England that I instantly relate to. Like almost all her books, it follows the fortunes of a passionate but emotionally fragile young woman fighting to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. Roberts' fiction is more "feminist" than "chick-lit", I would say, and has a challenging edge that stereotypical chick-lit prefers to avoid.
But one thing Ms. Roberts does very well is describe the inner emotional landscape of her characters as well as the more concrete outside world. She is quite capable of flights of naturalistic descriptiveness and poetic fancy ("The day is all white, a cool moist gauziness under the mossy old cedars on the lawn where the sun cannot reach in very far, a dry shimmering whiteness in the open air above the lawn and around the house"), but she doesn't use it to excess. She also has a facility for pithy and poignant epigrams ("By being perfect in her obedience she manages to feel superior to the rules that require it"; "She falls into his embrace like a suicide jumping off a cliff", " She weaves the fabric of the home out of her very self, like a silkworm producing the gold thread from its marrow before it dies"). But again, not to excess - Roberts is, if nothing else, a paragon of English self-restraint and understatement.
The Visitation is, more than anything, a book about relationships: the protagonist Helen's relationship with her parents, with her twin brother, with her grandmother, with various boyfriends and girlfriends, and with herself and her writing. Maybe that makes it chick-lit, I don't know. It also draws heavily on her own life, from her early convent education, her upbringing in suburban London, her university years in Oxford, her time with the British Council in Thailand, and her active participation in the socialist and feminist circles of 1970s London.
There are pregnancies and funerals, ear piercings and pubic shavings, but there is no real story arc or plot as such, just a series of episodes. Towards the end, some important plot-like revelations do seem on the verge of being revealed, but these just tail off and dissipate, deliberately unresolved. Also, I have to say that one can't help disliking most of the characters in the book for one reason or another.
For all that, though, The Visitation is a well-crafted and vital novel, and a fascinating glimpse into the nascent feminism of middle-class 1970s Britain.

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