Ecstatic Appeal

Michele Roberts' Poetic License With The Lives Of Her Female Saints Offers A Rich, Disturbing Read.

Impossible Saints, by Michele Roberts (Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace). Paper, $13.

ECSTACY REIGNS IN this novel by English- and Frenchwoman Michele Roberts.

Her characters are saints transformed and transfixed by the power of the Holy Spirit; by the solace of the Virgin Mary; by the preached word, the written word, the mortification of the senses; by the submission to will, the assertion of will, the appeal of perfume and silk and spice, the shiver of flirtation, the thrill of seduction; and by the bleeding of erotic love into father-daughter relations.

Categorizing Impossible Saints under the genre of "Saints' Tales," as one online library service has done, risks offending more devout readers, but it's only mildly ironic. This intricately wrought work is for the aesthetically receptive and religiously tolerant.

Impossible Saints, first published in 1998, has been released this summer in trade paperback. Author Roberts has produced seven novels, three books of poetry and a collection of short stories. A writer's writer, her 1992 novel Daughters of the House was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Architecturally framed, Saints opens and closes with a room -- the golden chamber within the golden house, the sanctified repository of sanctified remains; a "disorderly house full of dead women." Some parts of the body of Josephine, the central character of the book, lie there; other parts remain in places unknown. This sort of ambiguity mirrors a central theme about the nature of sainthood.

Roberts has threaded Josephine's story through a collection of what the publicist calls "11 actual female saints" -- many of whose credentials you must question, but whose ends seem suited to their ecstatic indulgences. Saint Paula, for example, spurred on by Saint Jerome, inspires one daughter to death by ascetic anorexia, and another to pious and terminal virginity. She abandons the rest of her children to go off and found a religious order.

At age 12, Saint Agnes is shorn of her golden hair, stripped naked, and flung into the streets by her enraged father. The most redeeming aspect of her story is how comfortable Agnes becomes in that original sinful state, and how quickly a fad for crewcuts can catch on in the lands of the holy.

As for Josephine, redemption comes in quite a different form. Roberts acknowledges that inspiration for this book came from the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century ascetic who refused for 15 years to pray, had a spiritual reawakening, and then produced a notable collection of letters, poems and essays. Josephine, too, needs to write.

The bright and inquisitive eldest of 15 children, Josephine has access to her mother's silk-wrapped fiction, gardening and medical books. After getting caught practicing a position from an anatomy tome, Josephine is shipped off to boarding school, where she learns to adapt to order, discipline and propriety. The experience prepares her for serious convent life, and when her father begins showing signs of marrying her off, she flees to the refuge of a religious order.

One of Josephine's self-imposed denials -- for she has an abiding love of solitude -- is forced communal living. When unexpectedly she's given the charge of a young niece, she receives separate quarters -- gaining both the privacy she relishes and a new receptivity to emotional attachment. And Jesus visits her.

Jesus is a light, a Presence, a glorifying, fulfilling warmth that makes Josephine want to faint, and makes the Church want to sniff out the work of Satan. To cure Josephine of ecstatic visions, the church inspector assigns her a new father confessor, Father Lucian, who gives her regular essay and discussion assignments -- a practice well-known to eradicate any creative or imaginative impulse. It succeeds. The more Josephine analyzes her raptures, the less frequent they become. Finally, "Jesus smiled reproachfully at Josephine and disappeared."

The loss of Jesus in her life does leave a void; however, handsome Father Lucian provides Josephine a new means to experience exaltation. She and niece Isabel, now 15, take a hiatus from convent life.

Girls aged 12 to 15 feature prominently in this work. Aware or unaware of their own budding sexuality, they complicate family lives -- particularly their fathers' -- and catalyze action. Saint Barbara, aged 12 at her mother's death and now a nubile 15, becomes a disturbing presence. Provided with wealth but sheltered from the world, Barbara catches the eye of the household's gardeners, workmen and (in a scene reminiscent of the Old Testament) her own father as she bathes. Her father's subsequent effort to eradicate temptation precipitates an entertaining miracle that speaks to the power of women.

The power of collective femininity is another motif in Impossible Saints. The daughter of Saint Peter, himself a lachrymose domestic tyrant, seeks protection in the company of women when she's married off to a wealthy heathen. And a personal favorite of this reviewer, Saint Christine -- fat, greasy-haired and uncommunicative -- finds freedom locked in a tower with 11 other madwomen. She does have the advantage of being able to soar above them when they become tiresome.

Roberts' novel is imaginative, disturbing and thought-provoking. Her writing is lush and sensory, with food and gardens abounding in delicious detail. Spiritual quickening appears as a viable experience, as does nascent sexuality: "The dark wrapped her like bedcovers. It was the room of her dreams, walls soft and shadowy as moth's wings, dissolving into the night sky."

Themes such as the destructiveness of patriarchal relationships and institutions and the consolation of female friendships imbue but do not burden the novel. As Roberts winds the unsettling motif of father-daughter eros increasingly tighter, salvation is effected through creativity and imagination; the divine becomes a consummation of the spiritual with the physical. Part of the success of this book stems from Roberts' highlighting pubescent girls, particularly at that exquisite, innocent point where the romantic is inextricable from the religious.

Roberts' characters, for the most part, are distant and vaguely drawn; they're stock princesses, daughters, or pious hysterics -- generalized in a saints' lives formula. She creates intimacy, however, when she describes their moments of transport: "...The enormous quiet...scooped her up unto itself, a vast emptiness that was full of God. The dimness in which she sat was a blackness dusted with gold, glittering with tiny points of gold, very fine, a gold mist veiling the darkness. Sweetness arrived and entered her."

Josephine's sanctification -- part divine, part human -- speaks to the conflicting interests and motivations of institutionalized religion. Her personal voyage answers the need to manifest multiple facets of the self. Impossible Saints is a multi-layered, rich novel, but as Kirkus quipped, "The Vatican will not be amused."

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