I have long hated A.S. Byatt, mostly because of her comments about Harry Potter. Also, because she seems like a real life Professor Umbridge to me. Also, she has a ridiculous feud with her own sister (also a writer) because the sister, Margaret Drabble, wrote about at tea set that their mother had owned, and Byatt wanted to write about it in future. Did you follow that? Did it make sense? If so, I must be explaining it wrong. They’re fighting over the ability to write about a tea set? Doesn’t that seem like a Professor Umbridge sort of thing?
So, it took some effort for me to start this book with an open mind. I had a Contemporary British fiction class a few years back, and the professor told me how great the book was. So, here I am. I decided to read it, but in some form of protest, I bought it second hand. No profits to Byatt, at least.
I will say that in the first two pages of this book, I recognized that Byatt is an immensely talented writer. And by talented I mean capable, skilled and brave. Throughout the book, she employs many different characters from various time periods, and uses epistolary form, original poetry with a very Victorian style, and traditional narrative. She is very adept.
The book begins with the discovery of a letter from a famous poet, never before seen (the letter, that is, not the poet). The letter is from the famous poet to an unnamed lady (later revealed to be a poet herself) The characters embark on a long and tumultuous hunt for answers about the relationship between these two culturally-significant writers. Their journey is helped and hampered equally by the inherently competitive, borderline ludicrous nature of modern academics. Only those who have spent time working in academia can vouch for the veracity of this sort of underhanded political nonsense, but I have heard rumors that make me believe it’s rather obvious.
So…is it good? Well… It is skillful and clever. But it lacks satisfaction and passion and all of the things that make some books jump off the page. There is simply no chance of the reader being swept away with the moment of the scene. It is brave in form and style, but rather cowardly in terms of emotion. Some might argue that that sort of thing is very British, but I disagree. The British novel is often about the furious simmering of emotions just below the surface, not visible, but felt strongly. This novel was more nihilistic–I felt that the emotions just weren’t there for many of the characters. Those that were strongly emotional were described in coddling and condescending terms.
Plus, I must say that the ‘main character’ is NOT the protagonist, and is not the center of the action. Of course, this is nothing new. Look at the Great Gatsby if you doubt me. But in this novel, the story seems to happen near Roland (the main character), but it all revolves around Maud Bailey, who is wrapped up in the mystery in more ways than one. Roland is passive, and mostly unchanged by the events. Why have him around then? In Gatsby, to continue with that analogy, Nick Carroway is necessary because only he sees all that goes on around him, and is left in one piece to record what has happened. But he is changed fundamentally at the end of the novel. Roland, however, seems to me quite the same. I felt that Byatt’s attention was always focused on Maud, and if that is the case, why not simply make her the main character?
Would I recommend it? Not so much. Intellectuals and academics would like it perhaps more than I did. But for me it seemed more style than substance, more that it was meant to be impressive than it actually made an impression on me. If your priority is to feel something when you read a story, this is probably not the story for you. If you’re more interested in the things an author can do with the written word, then go for it.