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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Game


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To purchase The Game

Title: The Game
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Novel
Written: 1967
Length: 286 pages
Availability: The Game - US
The Game - UK
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Our Assessment:

A- : good, literary, family drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Encounter . 7/1968 Malcolm Bradbury
New Statesman . 13/1/1967 Eric Rhode
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/3/1968 Martin Levin
The Spectator . 13/1/1967 Olivia Manning
TLS . 19/1/1967 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "What is so admirable about Mrs. Byatt's treatment of her characters is her blending of what they are with what they believe. (...) Yet the author doesn't sacrifice emotion to philosophy; her book is cumulatively exciting." - Martin Levin, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Game tells the story of two sisters, Cassandra and Julia Corbett. They are in their late thirties. Cassandra is an unmarried Oxford don and mediaevalist. Julia is married to do-gooder Thor Eskelund, has a teenage daughter named Deborah, and has a budding career as a writer.
       The sisters aren't very close, and they're brought back together here for the first time in ages by their father's illness (and then death). Before they return to the family home Byatt devotes a chapter to introducing each in their current settings -- and presents a very different reminder of the past, in the form of naturalist Simon Moffitt, appearing on television from some Amazonian outback. He was a neighbour -- already snake-obsessed back then -- , and a friend to them both, though the exact nature of their relationships (and what so clearly went wrong) isn't addressed immediately.
       Returning to the family home the sisters are faced with one another again. Snow-bound, facing their father's death, ever-helpful Thor making most of the arrangements, the sisters are thrust, at least in part, back into their childhoods. Cassandra can no longer be quite so domineering, but they're both willing again to play at a 'Game' they had invented: an incredibly elaborate Brontësque fantasy world they had built for themselves beginning when they were aged seven and nine, governed by complicated rules of their own making.
       Neither had entirely escaped the fantasy world -- Julia perhaps more obviously, as a writer of fictions, but in fact it is Cassandra who in many ways is even further removed from contemporary reality (ensconced as she is in the odd artificial university world of Oxford). They're aware of it, and of the disappointment that reality now offers them, Julia asking her sister:

Aren't you appalled that nothing we can do now can possibly measure up to the -- the sheer urgency, and beauty and importance of all -- all we imagined ?
       Their day-to-day lives are odd, and in some ways disappointing. Julia is the more robust, somehow able even to put up with the indigent cases Thor insists on taking in (making for an almost unbearable domestic life in all respects). She's not a particularly good (or interested) mother -- with her daughter Deborah going so far as to turn to aloof Cassandra for moral and other support -- and she takes a lover, but at least she has her novel-writing as a safety-valve. The pressure builds up for a while, but she does find inspiration and is finally able to unload on the page again.
       Unfortunately, inspiration comes from a visit to Oxford and Cassandra she makes. She comes to Cassandra ostensibly seeking relief from her own near-intolerable living conditions -- a weekend respite -- but leaves with something entirely different, something she can't quite let go.
       Added to the mix is the reappearance of Simon, away from England for some ten years, he re-enters both sisters' lives, visiting them each in turn. Past is dredged up, and doesn't fit particularly well with present, as each of the sisters tries to get a hold on things; one succeeds, the other doesn't.
       The novel does devolve into melodrama, to some extent. Too good to be true Thor eventually proves he is as much, snake-man Simon is an odd sort of charmer, and one of the sisters does meet (or rather: make) a fairly melodramatic exit. But Byatt almost never overdoes it (there was perhaps a bit more snake-talk than necessary), and the novel is a gripping, slightly perversely enjoyable ride.
       It's a literary novel: "We were fearfully articulate", even Cassandra thinks, recalling the sisters' childhoods and looking at the great wads of writing they had been responsible for, "limp and compressed now, so prodigal of energy then." Writing, creation, imagination -- and the contrast to day-to-day life, their otherwise so practical Quaker upbringing, and over-generous helping hand Thor -- are effectively presented within what is a fast and surprisingly rollicking read. The book contains both the exotic (from the Amazon to nascent television to Oxford) and the domestic (in all its many horrors, beautifully presented). And how can one not like a novel in which a character tries to explain herself by acknowledging: "I am suffering a kind of metaphysical distress" ?
       (The Game -- and its characters -- also make for odd echoes of Byatt's later work (which most readers wil have come to first): most obviously, Julia's TV work reminds of Frederica's in A Whistling Woman, and her domestic situation in many ways mirrors Stephanie's in Still Life. In fact, from the minor figures and domestic crises to the animal-interests there's much that reappears, in slightly different guises, in later novels. Rarely, however, has Byatt done so much so successfully as here.)

       The Game is sprightly, enormously clever, and populated with well-drawn characters (including Thor, Deborah, and TV man Ivan). It is an enjoyable story, and it is very well-written. The melodramatic turn seems a bit rich, but Byatt handles it with aplomb. Certainly recommended.

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The Game: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt lived 1936 to 2023. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she was the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She was the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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