The title is vital to this novel, promoting a theme that might otherwise appear incidental: the question of how much people in rural France knew, or wanted to know, or even could know, about events that happened around them during the Second World War.
Michèle Roberts’s story is set within a tightly framed, almost hermetically sealed geography: the hill town of Ste-Marie, divided vertically into echelons of class, with a ‘lower town’ below and a convent school at its pinnacle; and its slightly more worldly sister village of Ste-Madeleine. Within these confines move two girls: Jeanne, whose mother converted from Judaism in 1920, and Marie-Angèle, whose proud Catholic shopkeeper mother takes on Jeanne’s impoverished ‘Maman’ as a charitable project. The two girls are thrown together for a while, aged nine, inside the convent school, where extreme insularity is abused in the usual ways by pettiness and perverts. News of the outside world in the 1930s (‘about Jews’) enters only in the form of old newspapers used as toilet paper.
Chapters are narrated by different characters, underscoring their ignorance by means of alternative perspectives. Occasionally a dud note is struck, such as when Marie-Angèle remarks on the occupying German soldiers that ‘They did a lot of marching’. But our indignant sympathy with Jeanne, in resistance to Marie-Angèle’s priggish hypocrisy, is