Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: The Shadow of the Sun, by A.S. Byatt

It’s fascinating to go back with an author who has enjoyed a very long and productive career, a career twinkling with awards and accolades, and read her debut novel, written at a time when her talents were clearly evident but not yet fully formed. The novelist in question here is A.S. Byatt. I’ve read a couple of her other works – Possession and Babel Tower – and consider them two of the most serious, well-structured, and gripping literary novels around. The Shadow of the Sun, first published in 1964 and containing sections that Byatt composed while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, displays many of the abilities that have become her hallmark: the nuance of character, the methodical pacing and structure, the unapologetic bookishness. And yet like so many debut novels, The Shadow of the Sun is barnacled with flaws that are difficult to ignore.

The book tells the story of 17-year-old Anna Severell, daughter of a critically acclaimed but profoundly eccentric English novelist named Henry Severall, as she tries to get out from under her father’s shadow and find a place for herself in the world. The Severells’ domestic situation is glaringly old-fashioned in its pre-feminist rhythms: mother Caroline organizes the household entirely around Henry’s creative processes and idiosyncratic behaviour: she can’t even fathom her life having any other function. His work must take precedence over everything and he is not to be bothered with the dull, quotidian trivialities (or capricious, day-to-day emotions) of his family while writing.

Needless to say, Anna finds her father’s domineering presence and unpredictable behaviour stifling in the extreme. She is desperately trying to determine her fate: will she follow in her father’s footsteps (she possesses some literary abilities of her own) and become a writer? Will she even attend university? Or will she resign herself to her mother’s path and become some man’s subservient and (mostly) docile wife? Her dilemma is complicated by the arrival of Oliver Canning in their lives, an academic acolyte of Henry’s who has come to do a study of him. While on a visit, Oliver strikes up an affair with young Anna behind the backs of the Severell family and Oliver's hysterical wife Margaret. Without spoiling too much, Anna and Oliver’s coupling takes a turn that jeopardizes Anna’s very future, and Henry needs to be roused from his profound self absorption to do his fatherly duty and come to her rescue.

The problem with all of this is the sheer blatancy of what Byatt is attempting to say in this novel. Thematically speaking, everything in The Shadow of the Sun is glazed with a slipshod obviousness, right down to the novel’s title. Byatt is clearly – perhaps too clearly – positioning Anna in an unstable interregnum between the more traditional role of a woman and the burgeoning opportunities that are coming with the dawn of feminism. Henry is himself a symbol, one of a (now mostly bygone) age where a man is not only the head of a household but the very centre of all things, the sun around which the familial planets revolve. And the fact that Henry struggles to live up to the double-edged responsibility of that privileged position, to come and support Anna in her time of trouble, lends a predictability to both the novel’s plot and its themes.

Having said all that, The Shadow of the Sun is remarkably well written and paced for a literary novel written by someone still in her twenties. Throughout the text, Byatt keeps many of her talents right at her fingertips: the fluid modulations in narrative perspective; the finely drawn tinges to her characters’ personalities; the depth of her descriptive writing. It’s all there, even if it’s slightly undermined by an unseasoned, still-nascent approach to theme.

In the end, this novel is definitely worth checking out – not only for its own merits but as a study in Byatt herself, and the later greatness she will achieve.

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