Written by: A.S. Byatt
Published by: Vintage Books
Many people know of Byatt’s work through her excellent and Booker prize-winning novel Possession. The Game, however, is nearly as worthy as that other novel, but relatively unknown.
The plot revolves around sisters, Julia and Cassandra, who as children played a game revolving around a fictional world of Arthurian Romance. As adults though, Julia and Cassandra have not only been forced to leave their imaginary world behind, but have drifted from each other. The catalyst of the action is the arrival of a man from their past, one they have both loved, who is bent upon manipulating them for his own ends.
The characters, while both brilliant, talented, and gifted in their own ways, can also be bitter, petty, vindictive, jealous, and selfish. In other words, just like real sisters can be. Cassandra, the smart, serious one, is a medievalist, teaching Arthurian literature at Oxford. Julia, the pretty, vivacious one, writes romance novels (that’s “romance” with a little “r”). Both of them have suffered in love at the hands of Simon, a none-too-stable herpetologist.
[ad#longpost]As with all of Byatt’s work, the prose is rich with symbols and deeper meanings. But the real story here is not only the relationship of Julia and Cassandra, but each woman’s relationship with herself. Byatt explores the ways people can respond to deep loss, and what it means to never quite get over a disappointment, or a series of disappointments. The danger of living in dreams and of expecting too much from life is never quite out of sight, and the tragedies of the novel are all too inevitable.
As an academic herself, Byatt’s prose style is at times challenging, as are her ideas and the themes she explores in her works. Yet her writing style is simply so lovely that any reader will find her work accessible and entertaining. Anyone who has ever sought sustenance in the dry and dusty halls of Academia will see themselves in Cassandra, but then again, anyone who has ever thought they found success but then still felt strangely inferior to a sibling will sympathize with elements of Julia. Byatt’s characters are complex enough to stand on their own, but human enough to strike a chord, or several chords, with her readers. Those who love Arthurian tales, mysteries, the academic life, and Greek tragedies will all find something to love in The Game, as will anyone who has ever lost something beyond price and felt a grief beyond the telling.
In short, this novel is not Possession and should not be approached as if it were. The Game is darker, much darker, and deals with human emotions that shame us, not exalt us–jealousy, bitterness, baseless rage, disappointment. But yet, in asking readers to confront the foibles of Cassandra and Julia, Byatt is really asking us to confront ourselves and perhaps, make of life something more than a game to soothe our disappointed hearts. Not only a cautionary tale, though, the book succeeds in portraying what it’s really like to suffer and then wonder what you suffered for. Is there a ray of light or hope in The Game? Maybe. Just as with real life, it all depends upon what you take away with you.