Cut Out

Michèle Roberts

Published by Sandstone Press 12 August 2021

272pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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The latest novel from this immersive author is the story of three convent-educated Provençal country girls, schoolfriends whose postwar lives intersect with that of the great French artist, Henri Matisse, in his final phase. Sixty years on, librarian Denis travels from London to the South of France, to visit the last survivor of the trio – his godmother, Clémence, who has sent for him on learning of his mother’s death.

Denis’s journey from the present to Cleménce’s past and back is presented in alternate chapters interleaved with vivid descriptions of photographs of Matisse at work on his cut-outs, taken by one of the story’s subsidiary characters.  Like so much else in this novel, these imaginary photographs sound extraordinarily convincing – familiar, even, to anyone who has studied Matisse, seen the archive or visited exhibitions of his work.

What is less familiar is Roberts’s emphasis on life below stairs and in the background of the artist’s life.  Here, she gives centre stage to a woman who wants to be an artist and does her damnedest to free herself from the expectations of society.

Daughter of a dressmaker, and first encountered as a young girl helping out when the local bakery takes in paying guests, Clémence uses every chance she gets to skip over a wall and steal some free time alone with a stub of pencil and a couple of empty blue sugar bags filched from the kitchen drawer.  When she runs away from home, she lands a job as chambermaid at the Hotel Regina in Nice, where her friend Monique (destined for life as a nun, and suggested here as the inspiration behind Matisse’s famous designs for the chapel at Vence) is night-nurse to the Master.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, the two young women dress up in exotic clothes from Matisse’s studio and pretend to be his assistants. Their friend Berthe has married a young English diplomat.  She keeps suggesting that Clémence visit them in Paris.  When the time comes for this, Clémence is in serious trouble, and it is Matisse himself who sends her, directly to his wife Amélie, who gives her refuge and finds her work in the ateliers of the Folies Bergères.

Denis is Berthe’s son.  Raised in London, gay, ageing, he feels his mixed heritage acutely.  Gone are the childhood summers spent in France with his artistic godmother; gone, too, his mother’s French cooking.  He has a few good friends, but he is lonely and would like to have had a child of his own. As can happen with return journeys, what he learns about his mother and her friends brings him much more than he expects.  There is much tender observation in this part of the story.

As always with Roberts, the reader is treated to marvellously sensuous descriptions.  Here, too, are many colourful forms of resistance  –  to the repressive side of Catholicism, to gender stereotyping, to constraint of all kinds.  This resistance may be cheeky, or angry; it is always passionate, playful and imaginative.  Roberts’s characteristic celebration of the good things in life is seen through a story of female friendship, as her workaday characters cope with their dreams and disasters.  And through the eyes of Clémence, we see the gorgeous welcoming vivacity of Matisse’s art afresh.

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