Paper Houses by Michele Roberts

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Paper Houses by Michele Roberts

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Michèle Roberts has produced a nostalgic wallow for seventies lefties, and some revealing tidbits for lovers of her novels. But her memoir may struggle to find an audience beyond these groups.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084074

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Sex, drugs and rock and roll promises the blurb of this memoir. Librarianship, lasagne and lieder would have been equally accurate but would not, I suspect, sell as many books.

Paper Houses is novelist Michèle Roberts' account of her life after she left Oxford University at the start of the 1970s. It covers much of the subsequent 20 years or so. And, as you might expect from a tale of a lively, attractive and intelligent young woman in the liberal London of those times, yes, there is sex. Roberts weaves her enjoyment of her sexuality, and her exploration of its hetero- and lesbian aspects, throughout this book. But it is not as overdone as the publishers might wish you to think. She is simply as matter-of-fact about this as she is about most aspects of her life.

Her honesty extends to the treatment of the conflicts between her new life of squats and street theatre and her Catholic upbringing. She explores equally openly other contradictions - between her love of men and her growing espousal of feminism; between her mixed French and English parentage; and tensions arising from the need to survive while following her emerging vocation as a writer.

I imagine that readers of her novels (of which I am sadly not yet one) will value learning about the young author's early struggles to find a voice and become a published writer. Tellingly, one of the books she reads for pleasure upon leaving university is by DH Lawrence - and there is something Lawrentian in the way she mines her fiction from her dark unconscious.

Those who lived through the heady years of left-wing politics, who bought Time Out and Spare Rib (Roberts worked for both) in the halcyon days before the rise of Thatcher (no relation) will no doubt read this book with a lot of nostalgic pleasure. Even if you didn't experience those times, there's still much to enjoy in Roberts' vivid descriptions of meals, clothes, friends and houses.

But what shines through most clearly is her love of London, springing from endless explorations of the capital, eating in its cafes, drinking in its pubs. Most of the chapters are named after the London districts in which she lived - Holloway; Holland Park; Peckham Rye.

The sheer variety of that experience, the enviable number of friends, lovers, colleagues, can at times be bewildering. More impressionistic than anecdotal, the writing often has a breathless, almost contrived vigour (she rarely simply drives or rides anywhere; she 'whizzes' or 'zooms'), and I often felt overwhelmed by the amount of detail, which at times threaten to eclipse the author's own personality.

In a coda to her main story, she becomes more overtly analytical, particularly about her relationship with her parents. She expresses anger and bitterness about the Catholic church, and towards other writers who nick her fictional forms. This was actually quite refreshing, as was the affecting description of her love for her second husband. It was a pity that such feelings couldn't have been better integrated throughout the book.

But now she's an award-winning novelist and respected academic (she is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia), with two marriages under her belt. Michèle Roberts clearly feels she can reflect on her early adulthood with some detachment and an affectionate generosity towards her younger self. I doing so, she has produced an accessible, candid picture of people, times and places.

Its potential audience may be limited to those who seek an insight into her writing or simply the milieu from which she sprang. For them, the book captures the joy and despair, frustration and fun of a full and fulfilled life. I just wonder how many others will be tempted to discover its undoubted pleasures.

Thanks go to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

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