Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Review - Ragnarok by A.S Byatt

One of the greatest things about my job is the access we get to proof copies of new books months before they are actually published. Although I have to admit that most of them are unmitigated drivel and/or Norwegian crime novels with strap lines along the lines of SHE HAS NO ARMS OR LEGS ANY MORE, BUT... SHE'LL NEVER GIVE IN, from time to time we do score big.

Which is the explanation for why I have just finished reading the newest addition to Canongate's Myths series, Ragnarok by A.S Byatt. (Bear in mind that what I've read, and what I'm reviewing, is the advance proof, so there may be changes in it between now and the release - nothing I quote is final.)

When it arrived it caused a slightly undignified fight between me and one of the people I work with, which I lost because he is older and more muscular. I suppose this is apt, since Norse mythology is full of people gleefully hitting each other over the head with things (one of the reasons why I like it so much). In fact, Norse mythology is so great that I'm always surprised at the raw deal it gets, comparitively. The Greeks and the Egyptians seem to be seen as the fun, sexy, zeitgeisty gods who do interesting things and so get cool book and movie projects, while the Norse gods are just stuck out there in the cultural wilderness, hitting each other over the head with things. There definitely are not enough good English retellings of Norse myth, and so the fact that someone as great as A.S Byatt has decided to do something about it is brilliant. And, as far as actually retelling the myths goes, Ragnarok is pretty damn brilliant.

It's beautiful, lively, vivid writing like big bold jewellry, full of nasty, gorgeous images and with exactly the right rhythm to it. When the gods go to bind Fenrir:
Heimdall, the herald, who guarded the high gate of Asgard, could hear the grass grow on the earth, and the wool springing from the hide of the sheep. He could hear the wolf's blood pounding and pumping, he could hear his pelt expanding.
And from the description of Yggdrasil:
Pools formed in the pits where the branches forked; moss sprouted; bright tree-frogs swam in the pools, laid delicate eggs and gulped in jerking and spiralling wormlings. Birds sang at the twigs' ends and built nests of all kinds - clay cup, hairy bag, soft hay-lined bowl, hidden in holes in the bark. All over its surface the tree was scraped and scavenged, bored and gnawed, minced and mashed.
Byatt clearly loves the stories she's telling, and she's had a lot of enjoyment putting her own spin on them. She tells us that Loki's her favourite (which I really approve of her for) and the best parts of Ragnarok come when she's describing the sheer fun Loki and his children have just being chaotic, messing around, ruining the universe a bit because they enjoy it. The Norse myths are nasty stories with a nasty ending, and it's the casual bloodthirstiness of it all that Byatt's so good at. Seriously, for her retelling of the myths themselves I can't praise her highly enough.

However, I do think there's a slight problem with the whole Myths thing as a whole. The series itself seems to be a great idea in theory that tends in practice to be a bit hit and miss, quality-wise, since what it does is give the individual authors a lot of scope to think that Their Interpretations Matter, which in turn means that they are highly likely to go off on a mad little rant about whatever cultural bee they have in their bonnet. Jeanette Winterson, for example, did a retelling of the Atlas myth that was half lovely and half a weirdly personal screed about what a nasty sweaty rapist Hercules was.

To a lesser extent, Ragnarok falls victim to the same awkward issues. Byatt is telling her myths through, and interspersed with, the experiences of a little girl (who is very clearly A.S Byatt in awful disguise) growing up in the countryside during World War Two, as she's taught about Christianity in school and learns about the Norse pantheon from a book at home. In writing about her life, Byatt gets caught up in two horribly overdone plot tropes: one, that this is The First Child In The World To Discover Atheism, and the other, that the natural world she lives in is Dying Because Of The Greed And Foolishness Of Mankind. It's funny, because I am quite environmentally conscious and atheistic myself, but seeing these two themes crop up again and again in books makes me annoyed. It just feels like rather smug preaching to the choir - most people who read the kind of books that contain these themes are going to automatically agree with the views they express, and so really there's nothing remotely daring or thought-provoking about including them.

Having said that, though, I really did love Ragnarok. It was an absolute pleasure to read and it'll be a total geeky delight for everyone who's even vaguely interested in Norse mythology. As far as I'm concerned, when it's released on the 8th of September, you should all leap into your vehicles, drive to Blackwell's bookshop and purchase it at once.

4 stars.

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