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A S Byatt: The Game

This is a wonderful novel about relationships, particularly between two sisters. The eponymous game is, at one level, the imaginative role-playing game the sisters played as children. This game immediately makes you think of the Brontë sisters’ Gondal game and Byatt makes several references, both direct and oblique, to her fellow-Yorkshire siblings. But the game is also the relationship between the two sisters, whose lack of trust (spying on each other, pecking order) as children has now become almost total separation. At the beginning of the novel they are brought together by the illness and subsequent death of their father, a Quaker and conscientious objector during the war. Men are very much secondary to the sisters’ game but play a role in it, particularly Simon, a near neighbour (who saw his father shoot himself) whom both sisters were interested in as young women and whose interest is resumed when he returns from his travels (he is a herpetologist (and, yes, Byatt is well aware of the Freudian side of an interest in snakes), globe-trotter and TV star).

What makes this novel so wonderful is the shifting perspectives Byatt gives us on the two sisters. Of course, we see their own views. Julia is a writer, with the everyday problems of women her main topic (till she decides to write about her sister) but still insecure in her life. She externalises her world – talking about it, writing about it and listening to others talk about their problems. Cassandra is an Oxford don, specializing in medieval literature, who internalises everything, conveying her feelings to a diary which she keeps under lock and key, though Julia finds a way to read the diary. Not only does she keep the diary under lock and key but she also locks herself in her room and keeps her life very much to herself. Indeed, one of her friends suspects, probably with justification, that she is schizophrenic. What is important to her is that she is in control of her own environment, though others (particularly Julia) see this as a desire to control everybody.

We see glimpses of the relationship from all sides, not just from the two sisters. There is Thor, Julia’s saintly husband, a Quaker and professional do-gooder, always bringing some unfortunate to the house and resentful of Julia’s more worldly life, Deborah their teenage daughter, who resents her mother’s using her as a subject of her novels, Ivan, the producer of the TV show Julia appears on and also Julia’s lover, even the participants of the TV show, whose views on the snake films mirror as well as satirise the characters’ views on life and literature and, of course, Simon, the snake man, who shuns reality in his way. And this is only on Julia’s side. Cassandra has the people who react to her – friends, family, students, colleagues – so that Byatt gives us a complex and rich portrait of the relationship. And, of course, it all begs the question, how much is of this is Byatt’s own life, given, at the time of writing, her sister was a writer of domestic life and she herself an Oxford don.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Chatto and Windus