Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review : The Shadow of the Sun by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1991, first published Chatto & Windus 1964)

First novels seem to fall largely into two camps - those which spring fully-formed from their authors heads, usually after a prolonged gestation and which often turn out to be amongst the author's most significant work, and these tentative works of young authors which show glimpses of promise and even of genius but display a gaucheness of youth which disappears in the mature works of the writer. Northanger Abbey, for example, is not much more than a romantic gothic romp by a talented young author. The misanthropic William Crimsworth in The Professor by Charlotte Bronte has an uncertainty of characterisation which is absent from her later work.

Some authors, especially those whose work appeared in episodic form, slowly find their feet over the course of the novel. The first hundred pages of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley are virtually unreadable. Dickens' The Pickwick Papers starts uncertainly and doesn't really take off until Pickwick engages the services of Sam Weller in the third monthly serialised episode.

To various degrees, The Shadow of the Sun falls between the types described above. It had a long gestation. Its first draft had been written between 1954 and 1957 when Antonia Byatt was an undergraduate, but it wasn't published until 1964.

It has a certain gaucheness in characterisation. Henry Severall the self-absorbed author is believable, but his march for days through the wilderness, swimming through lakes and sleeping under the stars, is not - and his eventual reappearance in front of the car driven by Oliver and Anna is not in keeping with the tone of the book. The female characters, as one might expect, are perceptively drawn, even the intense and difficult Anna. Oliver, however, has walked out from that part of central-casting marked small man with massive chip about his working-class background. He is not a likable character, and never really comes to life until the second half of the novel.

To a large extent, the novel reads as if it was written in two parts. The first half is weak, full of coincidence and uncertain characterisation. By the second part, however, Byatt's acute sensibility has kicked in. The disintegration of Margaret is finely drawn, as is Lady Hughes-Winterton, the matriarch who is wise enough not quite to trust Anna for her darling son.

But the biggest gap for fans of A.S. Byatt is the lack of ideas and major themes. This is a sensitive novel of relationships, and whilst there are references to Lawrence and others the big ideas must wait for later. However it is clear that this is a young novelist of considerable power, who can write fine descriptive passages, with a keen and shrewd understanding of human nature, and the ability to unpick emotions. Whilst this is not a great novel, it demonstrates that there is much more to come from A.S. Byatt.

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