Joseph, Madeleine, Joseph, Madeleine, and so on: the two stories in Michèle Roberts’s new novel, separated by more than a century, alternate from beginning to end. One moment we are in the seedy side streets of Victorian London, the next in a sleek bar in the City. More disconcerting than the shifting locations are the contrasting perspectives of Joseph, married with three children and newly recruited by Henry Mayhew to research another volume of his encyclopaedic report, London Labour and the London Poor, and Madeleine, sixty, divorced, no children, and now forcibly retired from her post as a lecturer in English. Joseph is profoundly discomposed by his current commission to gather evidence directly from London’s prostitutes, Madeleine by her decision to sport black fishnet hold-ups for an evening out, where she’s surrounded by smart suits and women much younger than she is, with no other fishnets to be seen. What begins with two isolated lives, almost like the opening of a sequence of short stories, gradually starts to offer points of connection, with the echoes growing more insistent and the chapters shrinking until all voices join together at last.
Both are stories of survival. Joseph battles to support his wife and children after losing his job, gaining a post as Mayhew’s research assistant, only to be sacked again after suggesting that the city’s young streetwalkers are victims rather than hardened sinners. Madeleine, redundant because of cuts to