Sunday, 15 January 2012

Review - The Virgin in the Garden

'"Happy birthday," said Bird, "Happy me!"'

When I was a fledgeling, one of my favourite picture books was Bird's Birthday, which I liked because it was about me. (By the same token, I hated 'Who Killed Cock Robin' and 'The North Wind Shall Blow', because they were about me being shot and freezing to death respectively). Bird's Birthday, though, was about a bird who - you guessed it - had a birthday. My favourite part was the beginning, when the bird, excited about the upcoming day, went around for a week 'mentioning things in a casual way, like presents a bird most preferred.'

I tell you this because today is my happy birthday. I am 24, which is the same age Franz Muller was when he maybe killed Mr Briggs, and one year younger than Tea Obrecht was when she won the Orange Prize OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH MY LIFE.

To console me, though, I got an awful lot of books, which will keep me in reviews for months, or at least weeks. And here for you, while I get on and read them, is a review of one of my Christmas pile, A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden.

You know how I love A. S. Byatt. I thought, after the whitewash of fabulousness that was Possession, The Children's Book, Ragnarok and Angels and Insects, she could do no wrong. But even great writers have to have a few years where they're a bit wobbly, and it seems like Byatt's dodgy training wheels book is The Virgin in the Garden. To be fair, she was 42 when she wrote it, which I suppose leaves me with a few more years before I have to turn out that masterpiece, and also to be fair, when I say it's dodgy what I mean is that it's not practically perfect in every way. I have high standards when it comes to my Byatts.

Set in 1953 in The North, it's the story of some people putting on a play in honour of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Somehow, when I first read the synopsis, I managed to swap the 9 and the 5 round in my head, so I thought it was set in 1593 and about Liz I instead of II. I had a very confusing fifty pages of reading before I realised my elementary mistake. I suspect, actually, that Byatt is trying to make a 1953/1593 connection - the play in question is a flowery verse tribute to Elizabethan drama, and there are lots of slightly forced literary jokes about virgins and queens and so on. Everyone involved in the pageant runs about in bodices, sleeping with each other under bushes and considering the Alexandrine verse form, while there's an exceedingly weird sub-plot involving two people who think they're summoning demons. The whole thing is trying very hard to be riotous, and I suppose it is, in a studied way. It's certainly weird and it's even, about half of the time, fairly interesting - and yet there are ways that The Virgin in the Garden never quite works.

You can see the ways Byatt's going to excel in future, and to an extent already does - the minute attention to detail, the big, beautiful language, engrossing family relationships and a precisely described historic moment. But all the same, she's not quite there yet. For all that there are beautiful bits, the writing can be clumpy and overdone, and the light touch of her literary references in things like Possession fees, in this book, more like being beaten over the head with Shakespeare in a fat leather binding. In one party scene, for example, an unwelcome guest is compared to the character de Flores (he's the murder victim in Middleton's The Changeling, which I only know because I studied it at university). Yes, well done A. S. Byatt, very clever reference, top marks for being literary, but only about 2% of your readers are going to get it and the other 98% are just going to wonder who the hell that is and if it's about sex.

The humour, too, isn't as light and smart as in Byatt's later work. She's obviously in a phase where she's TRYING TO BE FUNNY, and the result is strange and ponderous, like bad Iris Murdoch. Actually, there's a distinct Murdochy flavour to The Virgin in the Garden, especially the demonic world-soul sub-plot, which could have been lifted wholesale from The Philosopher's Pupil. People spend a lot of time perched on bits of landscape, having odd philosophical discussions about sex and glaring at each other. Partly as a result of all those wordy words I spent a lot of the novel wondering whether or not I actually liked the characters enough to be reading 500 pages about their lives. The Potters, the family group that The Virgin in the Garden centres on, are all just a bit... unpleasant. Sure, some of them are that mix of objectionable-but-ultimately-loveable that makes for a well-rounded character, but some I just wanted to strangle and have done with it. Patriarch Bill Potter, especially, is a creation so absolutely infuriating that I frequently found myself wanting to rend his head from his shoulders and then jump up and down on it in an iambic rhythm.

All the same, the fact that I didn't enjoy this as much as other Byatts I've read still means I liked it a hell of a lot more than about three quarters of novels in general. Apparently, it makes up the first in a quartet of novels. I decided on about page 100 I wasn't going to read the rest of them, but by page 500 I was cravenly searching Amazon for good used copies. Partly this is because The Virgin in the Garden doesn't end, as such, but just cuts off with some people sitting on a sofa and feeling gloomy, but despite myself I found myself pulled into the Potters' world. Damn Byatt and her tricksy ways! I really was going to 2.5 star this, but the fact that I do want more makes me reluctantly admit that it's probably a 3 star book at least. So, 3 stars it is. And I know what I'm going to be spending my birthday book tokens on.

3 stars.


  1. Slightly late - but Happy Birthday. I read this many years ago and realise that I don't remember much about it. Dare I suggest that you spend birthday tokens on her short stories rather than the rest of the quartet, I vaguely remember reading them and being less and less interested. Her short stories however are wonderful.

  2. Ah, OK. If the others are worse...

    Which story collection would you recommend? (Obviously I've already read Angels and Insects.)

  3. The Djin in the nightingales eye, Little black book of stories, Matisse stories, and Elementals - those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head - I thought all of them were excellent.