The game

by A. S. Byatt

Paper Book, 1992





New York : Vintage Books, 1992.


When they were little girls, Cassandra and Julia played a game in which they entered an alternate world modeled on the landscapes of Arthurian romance. Now, the sisters are grown and have become hostile strangers--until a figure from their past, a man they once both loved and suffered over, reenters their lives. It is the skittish, snake-obsessed Simon who draws Julia and Cassandra into his charismatic orbit... and into menacing proximity to each other, their discarded selves, and the game that neither of them has completely forgotten.

User reviews

LibraryThing member otterley
This book is less immediately engaging than the later books which made A S Byatt popular, but it is intriguing and disciplined. It's possible to see her use of interlocking plots and relationships illuminating wider themes; her interest in science and religion as forms of creativity; and her detailed and precise excavation of personal relationships. In this case, the relationship between two sisters is the heart of the novel, illuminated by various other interactions. Awkward comedy sits alongside high seriousness, and the writing is detailed and demanding - I often found myself repeating sections of prose to try to understand the nuances. I enjoyed reading a novel where everything fits a purpose and there is very little additional baggage - I suspect some of its images will stay with me for a long time - Cassandra painting furiously in the botanical gardens; the awful college dinner party then skewered in fiction; Julia eating avocado with her lover in front of the fire...… (more)
LibraryThing member isabelx
Like certain reptiles she had learned to survive by leaving in Julia's hand the dead stump of the tail by which she had been grasped. One could even, she thought, sacrifice a more necessary limb, a hand, a foot, which would not grow again, and still survive. One could do this for ever, so long as one was not touched to the quick. Let Julia store and catalogue the limp relicts of what had been Cassandra. Successive skins, discarded hair and nails, the dead stuff of witchcraft, like the photographs, like the fiction.

At the start of the story, it seemed that Simon would be the snake who came between sisters Cassandra and Julia and ruined their relationship with each other, but then I realised that Simon had problems of his own and was in many ways just another piece in the Looking- Glass chess game whose moves and maps had been laid out long before his arrival. Oxford don Cassandra has spent her life trying to protect her own privacy and keep her little sister out, while Julia was desperate to be allowed in, but was careless with her sister's secrets.

When SImon comes back into their lives twenty years nearly twenty years after leaving to study snakes, it seems that they may be able to repair their relationship but then Julia ruins everything. Julia is a novelist who uses her husband and child as raw material for her best-selling novels and seems lacking in empathy, constantly having to ask her husband whether she is behaving badly, and asking another friend if she has written a wicked novel, when she should have realised herself that writing it was the ultimate betrayal. I prefer Cassandra but that is probably because she is the character most like me, as she isn't really any more likeable than Julia or SImon.… (more)
LibraryThing member iamfitz
While ostensibly being about the sibling rivalry between two sisters, largely centered on the affections of one man, Byatt uses this situation to elaborate on possibility and limitation. At one point, I was even reminded of quantum physics and the collapse of the wave function--the actual fact (the "tyranny of objects," as one of the characters states) limiting and defining the possibilities of imagination. Ocassionally, this theme was stressed a bit too strongly or obviously, but this novel was the product of a younger novelist and the story is so compelling that it's easily overlooked.

Byatt is not an overwrought author, and her prose can somtimes read a bit cold even when she is describing the most tragic of circumstances, but this isn't a complaint. Rather, it's refreshing not to be subjected to the rampant sensationalism substituting as emotional honesty that can be so easily found nowadays. More, she is a novelist of ideas and has the talent to weave these ideas into the fabric of the story itself rather than force the story into an ill-fitting box or, worse yet, simply overlay an idea onto an unrelated and hope nobody notices.

All in all, another fine book from an important author.
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LibraryThing member sonofcarc
Reading this I was reminded of Iris Murdoch; which is to say, I didn't quite know what to make of it, as I never quite know what to make of Murdoch.
LibraryThing member bookgirl59
This is a masterful bit of writing. The relationship between the sisters is both compelling and disturbing. I can not say that I "enjoyed" the book, but I did admire it.
LibraryThing member therebelprince
Blick. Bluck. Blech.

I'm not a huge Byatt follower (give me her estranged sister, Margaret Drabble, any day). But at her best, she's good.

Here... she ain't.
LibraryThing member Lukerik
Dire and deeply boring.

There's a problem with the dialogue and I notice she plays to her strengths at the start by keeping it to minimum, thank God.

She writes fairly well and most of her sentences can be understood but she's referencing works that elicit emotional responses. Le Morte Darthur gets me all teary eyed over some guy getting his brain pan cleaved. But it's not enough just to mention it. It doesn't impress me. And is that a ham fisted and abortive attempt at symbolism with the snakes? Don't make me laugh. Certainly don't make me cringe with sympathetic embarrassment at the pretentiousness of it all. The characters are pretentious because the author is.… (more)
LibraryThing member ffortsa
This was my first book by Byatt, and a very early one in her career. Had I not known of her relationship to her sister Margaret Drabble, I would have guessed something like it anyway. The two have been involved in a long feud since before they were published writers, it seems, and this novel puts that kind of feud on top of a set of adolescent crushes (over the same boy), a therapeutic marriage, Oxford, and TV parody. Julia and Cassandra are sisters that barely speak - Julia is a popular novelist (in the more scornful sense of the phrase), married to a serious Scandinavian Quaker, while Cassandra is a solitary, spinster Oxford don specializing in early English work like the Romance of the Rose. Who gets the better of these portrayals is, I guess, up to the reader, but as Cassandra is the older (like Byatt) and Julia the popular younger writer (like Drabble at the time this was written), the direction of the intended arrow is fairly clear. According to news accounts, Byatt sent Drabble a copy with an apology when it was published - but not before, you notice. (In this story, the direction is reversed!)

Until half-way through the story, I really struggled to keep going; I just didn't care about the sisters. Then the action speeds up (or I wasn't interrupted as i was before - take your pick), and I finished in a whoosh.

Byatt won the Booker for a much later book, Possession, which even her sister claims is a great work. This one, not so much.
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