Jeanne and Marie-Angele both grow up in the village of Ste-Marie-du-Ciel, and both survive the Nazi invasion. Jeanne, whose mother converted from Judaism to Catholicism and whose father died, has the better heart but the harder life, a life in which her childhood nightmares of Bluebeard and Hansel and Gretel come to life. Marie-Angele, daughter of small-spirited and materialistic shopkeepers, also learns about hunger during the war, but parlays her good looks to win over Maurice, a black-marketeer. He helps Jeanne and other Jews as well—but always for a high price. Marie-Angele is horrified when he hides a young Jewish mother and her two babies in Marie-Angele’s father’s shed. Jeanne, in the meantime, has gotten work as a housekeeper in a brothel in the appropriately named nearby village of Ste Madeleine.
What happens during the war is crucial, but it’s what happens afterwards that gives this novel real heft. It wasn’t until after I finished this book that I thought about its title, Ignorance, and the different kinds of ignorance displayed throughout the two towns and beyond. There’s the innocent ignorance of childhood, and then there’s the hypocritical ignorance of adults, especially religious adults, for starters. The kindest theologians talk about how evil is really nothing more than ignorance—but what if that ignorance is intentional?
This story was waiting for Roberts to tell it. She’s able to weave sensual poetry into the sucking existential hollowness of evil. When Maurice, smelling of lemon verbena soap, cigarettes, and brandy, first touches Marie-Angele, “sweetness fizzed up… all over my skin.” Ignorance seduces the reader, who is left floating through complicated lives suffused with betrayals but punctuated with kindnesses. Recommended.