Saturday, June 09, 2012

Book Review : The Game by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1999, first published 1967)

It is the winter of 1963, and when sisters Julia and Cassandra return to Northumberland on the death of their father, they are snowed in. Living once again in such close company, they are forced to re-examine aspects of their childhood, and the causes of the rivalry that has blighted their relationship. Foremost is their relationship with their neighbour, Simon, who is now a leading herpetologist and TV personality. Julia is married to Thor, who retains the Quaker religion that they all once shared, and is an author, whilst Cassandra is an Oxford don of Medieval literature.

This is a book as stifling and claustrophobic as Julia and Cassandra's relationship. Cassandra's jealousy of Julia is triggered when she won a writing competition as a girl. It was compounded by the attention that Simon showed to her. Julia is prettier, more easy-going, more successful, lacking the introversion and obsessiveness of Cassandra, but just as vulnerable.

It is a finely-written book, showing deep insight into the sisters' relationships, yet was never an enjoyable book to read. Partly there is a sense that everything is overdetermined, all the relationships in the book are too intense. All the characters are infuriating without exception. There is also a sense that parts of it just don't quite ring true. The Baker family, for example, who add to the sense of claustrophobia by being invited by Thor to live at their flat, never make it beyond a caricature of the indigent poor, whilst the fate of Simon's camaraman is supposed to be shocking but is almost amusing.

Much symbolism arrives with a clunk. It is very convenient that Simon is a herpetologist, introducing discord into the garden. Cassandra, meanwhile, studies dessicated medieval documents, and keeps a statuette of Morgan Le Fay. Thor's religion is seen as an oppressive force, forcing him to try to be good. In the end, its all a bit much. As Ivan comments on Julia's novel "it has a lifelessness books have when they're overwrought." It would be ten years before A.S. Byatt published another novel, but within a couple of pages one would be able to sense a lightness which this novel and its predecessor lacked.

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