Guilt trip down memory lane

DAUGHTERS OF THE HOUSE By Michele Roberts (Virago, $140) THIS is Michele Roberts' sixth work of fiction and for fans of her writing it may initially appear familiar territory.

Many of the themes, both nascent and overt in her earlier books, pervade this one: the overlay of recent wartime history in France, the influence of the Catholic Church in that same period and the sensuous use of language.

But it is there that the similarities end. Daughters of the House is a departure from her earlier, less-ambitious prose.

It presents a more sophisticated analysis of the burden of guilt and the insidious secrets of Catholic Vichy France, using a set of literary devices that disturb the senses rather than the cerebellum.

In the opening episode - a 11/4-page mini-chapter The Wall - Ms Roberts introduces us to the suffocating environment that we are about to explore in the cathartic reunion between two cousins after 20 years apart.

Leonie has been abroad; Therese has entered a convent. One has attempted to shed the skin of her religious sensibility while away from France; the other has sunk deeper, despite the efforts she makes to preserve her innocence, into the murky underbody oflife in her provincial town.

Thus, Leonie's arrival at The House is portrayed as the first of many nostalgic, yet suffocating, experiences.

The Wall begins: ''It was a changeable house. Sometimes it felt safe as a church, and sometimes it shivered then cracked apart. A sloping roof held it down. Turrets at the four corners wore pointed hats. The many eyes of the house were blinded by white shutters.

''What bounded the house was skin. A wall of gristle a soldier could tear open with his bare hands.'' Ms Roberts later continues: ''The house was strict. The rules indicated the forbidden places. Chief of these was the bedroom at the back, on the first floor, at the top of the kitchen stairs. The rules said you mustn't go there. It was for your own protection. Each time Leonie tried she had to halt. The terror was so strong.'' Welcome to Leonie's world. After going inside the house, what she finds in her discourse with Therese is horrifying with secrets and past sins everywhere.

They sight objects, including the bones of dead warriors from two world wars, which roll them back into history and its pain.

Meanwhile, the saintly, unctuous Therese reveals a priest's sexual fascination with her after she tells him of her religious visions.

Eventually, struggling for control 20 years later, Leonie confronts her past in that room at the back of the stairs where guilt and awful memories reside.

In her journey to that door, the graves of dead soldiers open and she hears their screams; the ugly, unseemly love affairs of her mother and father are re-examined and the force-fed images of the murderous deaths of hundreds of French Jews - including people which the two women had known - confronted, even if the guilt remains.

And in Ms Roberts' hands, that journey becomes superb, evocative story-telling.