“Before the war we lived a normal life,” says Jeanne Nérin, who narrates this tale with the voice of her friend Marie-Angèle Baudry. From France before the war, when the girls grow up in a convent school, to Marie Angele’s burgeoning sexuality when she meets suave Maurice Blanchard
(“exuding an aliveness, a smell of money and newness and cleanness”) until 1946, when Jeanne is exiled to London in shame, Roberts marries the history of two women to the drama of occupied France and to the ignominy of a woman who betrays her country.
Jeanne spends many days at the Baudrys, who run a grocery shop smelling of sawdust and ground coffee while the convent school shelters behind a granite veil. Both girls are enamored
of the stories of a young woman trapped inside the courtyard with no way out as the sun beats her head “like a gong of death.” While Marie-Angele’s future is assured, her concern for a friend echoes through her thoughts. Jeanne, the daughter of a Jewish washerwoman, leads a more precarious existence.
From their pre-War poverty to scenes of Jeanne’s mother taking in darning to make ends meet to the war that literally "falls out of the sky" bringing even greater austerity, the girls know how to cope. As the German planes nosedive, dropping bombs, and the Belgian refugees stream into the towns and villages, Roberts' tale takes on a powerful symbolism as Marie‘s family struggles and the two friends
strive to hide from the bare cruelty of the Nazis.
Jeanne, at her peril, entertains the German troops, and Marie stores her first moments with Maurice away in her memory. When he plunges her into the furtive air of the black market, Marie knows Maurice will protect her from knowing too much about the risks he’s running, just as she protects her mother from knowing she has some Jews hiding in her shed.
There’s no choice but to live under a harsh and vicious occupation--certainly Jeanne, “that poor stupid unfortunate,” is never allowed to forget. At war’s end, her shaved head is her badge of shame and her ultimate betrayal.
As Jeanne works as a housemaid in a brothel, her view of these outraged and impoverished women with cheeks fat or sunken and coated in beige paint, “their eyes tinted black and blue like bruises,” reflects Roberts' penchant for poetic prose. Descriptions of them, semi-destitute and desperate for work, “willing to do anything,” coincide with Marie-Angele’s fortunes. Enterprising and lucky, Marie’s marriage to Maurice brings children and love
though she’s haunted by the past and the marbled despair of Jeanne. Jeanne is forced to relinquish her rights as a mother,
though Marie-Angele remains adamant that the baby still belongs to her friend.
Unfolding in tones as intimate as a dream, Ignorance melds the history of two women, offering a detailed view of France and its shifting social mores in an era of great economic and political change. Roberts offers a compelling study of opposing forces: the tyranny and decency of honor, the enduring power of real love, and the necessity of regret as Jeanne finds that that while her history may be in Paris, much
of her life will play out in London.