The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2021
What is this novel by U.K. author Bridget Collins? Well, as it is an intricately plotted, character-centered story, one could call it a soap opera. But at 400 pages, it is about half the length one might expect of the literary version of that genre — I mean, think War and Peace or Anna Karenina… No, it’s too short. It might be a gothic novel as most of it takes place in an isolated mountain academy, Montverre, with a vulnerable female protagonist: the Magister Ludi, to name her by her title, and yes, there is that ongoing element of repressed sexual tension there too. But “gothic” would be a far too partial a characterization to be accurate. Or you could call it alternate history / speculative fiction. This comes closest to the mark as the setting is, like most sci-fi, very much a character in the plot. But whatever niche is occupied by The Betrayals, the novel is not for everyone as the plot depends on ambiguity to maintain its momentum.
Ambiguity! Obviously I am enthralled. I love ambiguity (just peruse this blog and you’ll see). But ambiguity is something that others may find difficult or disappointing.
Consider one of the major elements of the setting, the grand jeu. This is French for big / great game. But what is it? Baseball? Quidditch? It won’t be much of a spoiler to say that Collins was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, but it has been decades since I’ve read any of Hesse’s work and none of it has remained in accessible memory. This is probably true for most of her readers. So how does Collins handle this? It’s as simple as “The gostak distims the doshes.”
Nonsense? Not really. The syntax alone imparts information (see the Wikipedia article). All the author need do is carefully layer additional suggestions, clues if you will, that evoke meaning and relations in the mind of the reader. If it is done well, the reader is led on, following a trail (or trails) to find greater resolution. Bridget Collins is a master at this.
Collins also does this with her main characters, and I found this to be wonderfully attractive. For all that they are bright, educated people, none of them are entirely aware of why they make the choices that they do, and they second guess and suffer for it. Western culture in particular glorifies rational self-interest, but in fact we are often miserable at calculation and torn unaware by our own conflicting agendas. And then there are the circumstances surrounding these choices. To paraphrase old Karl Marx: Humans make history, but not just as we please. The combination is fertile ground for betrayal after betrayal.
Collins isn’t perfect at drawing her characters. One of her main characters, Léo Martin, begins the novel as an aspiring cabinet minister in an extreme right-wing, authoritarian party (referred to only as the Party) recently elected to power and consolidating its hold on the government and the country. Her portrayal of this portion of Martin’s life shows him far too naive and resourceless, not at all C suite material if you will, but I doubt most readers will notice. Politics has become so professionalized and thus out of most people’s experience that most folks would have a hard time sorting fantasy from the plausible. Remember this: about three quarters of all politics is gossip.
It is tempting to regard Léo Martin as an unreliable narrator. And he is. But he is also clearly not entirely in touch with himself. One might say he contradicts himself and thereby becomes legion. It is beautiful to see this aspect of personality manifested in prose. I do think this may not be unusual. Which one of you is reading this. Which one of me chose or typed these words?*
The story is told in the present tense. Flashbacks, in the form of journal entries, are in the past tense. It’s an interesting arrangement. I like Collins’ prose generally, but my favorite is the first chapter, introducing Rat. Not all the rest of the writing is this good.
The author brings the story in for a deft landing that includes a bouquet of betrayals and a twist that seems to offer a way out. And maybe it does. Ambiguity, remember? You can write the post-ending story as some manner of happy-ever-after romance, but the nature of authoritarian regimes is to make as many as possible complicit in their crimes, actively or passively. It’s a seemingly never ending series of betrayals, large and small. My humble opinion is that it ends well for no one.
Oh, and apart from my humble comments on technique, what’s the novel actually about? Read the bloody book; anything else is a spoiler. If you like the first chapter half as much as I do, you’re very likely to like the rest.
I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book. Maybe you will too.
Photo by Roman.
* Dissociative Identity Disorder would be an extreme example of this, but I’m not suggesting that everyone has these separate identities, rather merely multiple personalities that are assumed almost like clothing to fit the circumstances. When these personalities have conflicting agendas, the stage is set for self-sabotage…