It was the book I read following Michéle Robert’s novel Ignorance that gave me something to reflect on regarding the meaning of that loaded word she uses as her title.

In Maya Angelou’s latest autobiography Mom & Me & Mom (review pending), she speaks of ignorance and quotes her mother:

She said, “Ignorance is a terrible thing. It causes families to lose their centre and causes people to lose their control. Ignorance knows no binds. Old people, young people, middle-aged, black, white can all be ignorant .

An apt epigram for this war-time novel set in occupied France.

IgnoranceTwo young girls from a rural village are sent briefly to live in a local convent, Marie Angèle because her mother is about to have a baby and Jeanne, because her mother is unwell and in hospital. Marie Angle is the daughter of local middle class grocers, Catholic and raised with something of a sense of entitlement and superiority over her lesser friend Jeanne, whose mother, a widow converted to Catholicism when she married, but lives in a community that rarely allows her to forget her Jewish past. Marie Angèle expects to inherit half of her parent’s shop, she expects that the well-connected young Maurice, the man who can obtain anything during wartime will do the right thing by her.

I could hide my ignorance most of the time, because if he felt like talking he just wanted me to listen. One day, however, parked in the woods, he said : talk to me….I left Jeanne out of these tales. We’d been thrown together as children, purely by accident, we’d had a sort of friendship for a certain time, but we couldn’t mix now. I preferred to concentrate on positive things. That was how we were getting through the war.

Jeanne rarely thinks of her friend, she knows she is loved by her mother, observes their second class status in the way the nuns treat her compared to her friend, their quickness to judge and to listen to gossip as if it were fact. She is not ignorant of the activities that take place in the house where she works, but she like her mother is realistic about her opportunities, she doesn’t allow herself willingly to be taken advantage of, she learns from her past, though it will be insufficient to save her from the consequences of the misguided morals of her childhood friend.

Marie Angèle however, believes  that Jeanne, by working in such an establishment has thus become one of them, a common tart, she believes the village gossip, judges her former friend’s improved dress and appearance.  She portrays her own husband as a man unrecognisable as the same man Jeanne describes as one of the clients of that establishment. Even when confronted with an inkling of this truth, the wife’s inclination is not to question her husband, but to seek revenge against the bearer of the message, a penance that will continue to be paid into the next generation, as Marie Angèle manipulates control of Jeanne’s daughter Andrée and both their futures.

Womens prize logoThe novel is split into sections which view life in overlapping time periods from the perspectives of the two girls which couldn’t be more different, in particular on the part of Marie Angèle concerning not just her friend, but the plight of other families that must go into hiding. Towards the end there is also a section given to Andrée, Jeanne’s daughter and another from Dolly, one of the nuns, complicit in an act of betrayal.

The simple narrative structure exposes the ruinous attitudes, religious hypocrisy and shamelessly uninformed  morality of the ignorant and how it continues to be perpetuated by gossip, fed by jealousy and fueled by ill intention. It reveals that destructive instinct humanity sometimes imposes on the weak and those who are different from the rest. Devastating.

Ignorance is on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. The short list will be announced on April 16. Will this title be on it I wonder?

Note:  This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.