May 2008

Beth Harrington

fiction

Delusion by Michele Roberts

I first became acquainted with Michèle Roberts’s work when I read her novel Daughters of the House (short-listed for the Booker Prize) in a literature class my junior year of college. Recalling her masterful descriptions and intense prose, I was intrigued to read her latest book and discover to what extent the subjects and images of Roberts’ previous novel would carry over into her other works. Indeed, many of the themes of Daughters of the House reemerge in this one, Delusion: examination of the lives and relationships of women both with other women and with men, ambivalence towards religion (especially in the context of the convent), and migration between England and France. However, if Roberts’s style and motifs seemed familiar, the plot of Delusion immerses the reader in a vastly different set of circumstances in which past and present converge with the real, the imaginary, and the supernatural.

It is worth noting that the reader should not expect Delusion to make sense, at least in the beginning. For example, the first five scenes of the novel are the following: what appears to be a letter to one Mr. Redburn excoriating the clairvoyant mediumistic abilities of Flora Milk; a nineteenth century funeral procession in which a girl mourns the death of her father alongside her mother and sister; another letter, this one penned by an aristocratic woman named Minny addressed to her mother, in which she describes her bereavement regarding the recent death of her child; a reflective narrative by Hat, the daughter of a pharaoh of ancient Egypt, who reveres her father and aspires to take over his rule; a vignette describing the origins of a contemporary woman, Hattie, who was sent to live in a convent after being abandoned by her parents, and now makes her living cooking and writing books about cooking. The rest of the novel shifts between these perspectives, advancing the plot in fragments that eventually weave together and reveal all of these characters to be, in their own way, interlinked.

Ostensibly, Delusion focuses on the clairvoyant abilities of Flora Milk, a young peasant girl in nineteenth century Hackney, England. She aspires to achieve some means of success by holding public séances in which she interacts with the spirits of the dead and possibly by allowing the scientific community to study her and monitor the veracity of her craft. However, the story becomes much richer by encompassing the lives of all those affected by Flora’s medium-ship including her family, the family of the scientist studying her -- whose wife avails herself of Flora’s powers in order to make contact with her young, deceased daughter -- and even the possible identities of the spirits, from far before and long after Flora’s time, who conduct her to these realms.

The novel also explores not only the plausibility of the existence of clairvoyant mediums but the questionable methods used by scientists to substantiate them, especially when the subjects are women and the scientists are men. In this vein, a provocative part of the novel is when Roberts implies relationship between Flora’s behavior and that of the hysterical patients of Dr. Charcot, inserting Charcot himself into the narrative. It would be interesting to know whether the comparison drawn is grounded in historical belief or is Roberts’s own invention. Either way, it is a compelling theory that intertwines thoughtfully with the hints of abuse later revealed by Hattie, Minnie’s deludedly happy status as an indolent housewife, and Queen Hat’s own erasure by her people after her death.

Despite being a slender one hundred forty-eight pages, Delusion is no light read with its elusive plots and characters. The less assiduous reader may give up on this book that stubbornly refuses to make complete sense even on the last page. For my own part, I think I would have to read this book a second time in order to derive its full meaning. To Roberts’s credit though, her prose is enticing and evocative enough to make doing so a worthy task. As a closing footnote, at the risk of sounding less than literary, Delusion’s alluring cover art will hopefully invite new readers to discover Michèle Roberts’s literary vision.

Delusion by Michele Roberts
Pegasus Books
ISBN: 978-1-933648-66-8
148 Pages