Uncovering the lives of a London cul-de-sac
Fiction: The Walworth, Beauty, Michele Roberts, Bloomsbury, €23.79
Michele Roberts's latest novel, The Walworth Beauty, follows the fates of various Londoners in the 1850s and today. Joseph Benson, a researcher for the great Victorian sociologist Henry Mayhew, is charged with interviewing South London prostitutes to find out more about how they live.
He is married to Cara, the sister of his beloved dead first wife Natalie, and is a father and academic manque. In his research, he comes across the house of Mrs Dulcimer on Apricot Place in Walworth.
Mistaking it for a brothel, he finds himself drawn in by Mrs Dulcimer's warmth and wit.
Meanwhile, in 2011, a divorced ex-professor called Madeleine moves from her flat in the city to a large basement with a garden in Walworth, on Apricot Place. She befriends Rose, her neighbour's troubled granddaughter, meets the sinister Emmanuel in a local pub, and wends her way around the city in "a sturdy black cab, shining like a beetle".
Like her previous novels, Paper Houses and In the Red Kitchen, and her short story collection Mud, this is emphatically a London novel, one in which the Thames "shines and ripples like bales of tossed-out silk ribboning blue, indigo, olive green".
For Joseph and Mrs Dulcimer, Walworth is still part of the city, although the cul-de-sac of Apricot Place is fringed with fields so close that "under the bitter-smelling pall of London smoke crept the scent of warm earth, of blackberries ripening".
The novel brings home how many generations we live upon. Every street has its ghosts, every house its old inhabitants. Every relic in a museum had an owner, human and fallible and gone to the world, gone, at least, in our linear concept of time. But in The Walworth Beauty, the past is always ready to be glimpsed behind the present, "like parting a curtain".
Roberts is a rare talent, a mellifluous writer who weaves spells with words that draw the reader in like a crackling hearth. Secrets are "something that belonged to you alone, a golden, unnamed fruit that dropped into your hands, which you hid in your pocket, took out when you were alone".
Sensory descriptions are executed with exacting precision. Clothing, in particular, is described in opulent detail, from Madeleine's cardigans to the whores' colourful petticoats.
Likewise interiors: Mrs Dulcimer luxuriates in an overheated drawing room decorated with an ornate Chinese urn, gold satin cushions and "coloured prints in varnished frames on the pink-plastered walls".
The depictions of food are also pleasingly visceral. Joseph is a thwarted chef and through his eyes we see delicate sugar twists, gristly overcooked meat and flaky, buttery pastry.
Sex, too, as befits the novel's subject, is frequent and vividly rendered. Between Joseph and his late wife Natalie, it is playful, yet also tender.
"She invented such foolish larks. Tonight: pirates. Aha! You are my prisoner! She boarded him, she captured him, she stole his heart and soul away."
But it can also be callous; there is much mention of "needs". As Cara is too frail to perform her conjugal duties, Joseph seeks his pleasure elsewhere, with some of the prostitutes he should be interviewing.
Despite Roberts's honeyed tongue, I found myself rather out of sympathy with her characters. Joseph is well meaning but ultimately feeble. One recurrent theme is his constant promise to himself to buy presents for Cara: marabou-trimmed slippers, a new dressing gown, rose or carnation hand cream. Yet, time and again, he doesn't.
Madeleine seems far too immature for her 60-odd years: I'm not sure she would become such a bedrock to the teenage Rose. And Mrs Dulcimer, with all her cultivated mystique, is somewhat tiresome - you can see why Joseph keeps nodding off in her presence - and there's only so much her sad backstory can do to discount this.
Style does much to make the substance palatable, and there's no doubt that, when it comes to putting together a sentence, Roberts is a writer at the top of her game. But for all the lucidity of her prose, she leaves the title teasingly opaque.
Is the beauty Mrs Dulcimer? Madeleine? Or the beauty of people doing good for others in unexpected places?
© The Telegraph
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