Since I’ve read two books by A.S. Byatt so far this year, I thought it would be only fair to give one of her sister’s novels a try. Sister, you say? You haven’t heard of another novelist with the last name of Byatt?
Well, that’s because A.S. Byatt’s non-pen name is Dame Antonia Duffy (she was born Antonia Susan Drabble), and her sister’s name is Margaret Drabble.
Both writers have been laureled and lauded many times over, but they do not see each other often and do not read each other’s novels, the result, apparently, of their rivalry as writers and their disagreement over the portrayal of their mother and the use of the family tea-set in a novel. It’s a real shame, not only because their novels are so good, but because in all the interviews I’ve read, both women seem like lovely people.
Enough about that. Let’s talk about the book.
The back jacket of The Red Queen claims that it’s “a rich and playful novel about love, about personal and public history, and what it means to be remembered.” Readers may recall my feelings about unattributed jacket copy, and I do think that this is better than most, with one slight problem. “Playful” implies that the novel is funny, or piquant. It is not.
It is, however, excellent. What’s playful about the novel is its structure. In the first part, our narrator is the woman known, inaccurately, she tells us, as Lady Hong, a Korean princess of the eighteenth century. The Korean Crown Princess is known in Korea (less so in the rest of the world) for her memoirs, written for different audiences over a period of some time. The version of the princess that Ms. Drabble presents is an unreliable narrator, to be sure, sometimes blinded by her own interests or those of her family. She drifts into long digressions, circles around issues, leaves out salient details. She’s also dead, knows she’s dead, and has the advantage, with some limitations, of looking over history to fill out her own story. What she wants is to be remembered, to reach a wider audience (she won me over — I have to find those memoirs!).
In the second part of the novel, she succeeds. We switch gears entirely to follow Dr Barbara Halliwell in the present day as she attends an academic conference, makes a friend, and embarks on an affair in Seoul. Throughout her time in Korea, she’s drawn to the tale of the Crown Princess, unsure who gave her the memoirs and what she should be taking away from her visit, her affair, her very life. I’ll stop here, because you know I never offer spoilers. Let’s just say that the story keeps spiraling outward and inward, and the last few pages are a treat, so very clever. It’s a novel I’d be pleased to have on my shelf, and I hope you and A.S. Byatt will read it too.