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Brilliant in parts
on 8 July 2009
I can only review the first of the novellas, "Morpho Eugenia".
Byatt is known for the large amount of research she does for each book... and a tendancy to want to put it all on display! Perhaps there is rather too much about insect names in here, irrelevant to the plot and somewhat tedious. However, there is also, fortunately, much to enjoy.
The plight of William the poor northern Naturalist was a credible enough premise, and I enjoyed the intellectual debates between him and his wealthy father-in-law. I was however puzzled why the old man needed Wiliam's help to set down his opinions, and why he felt such a failure over the results. The father's compositon set out in full here (incorporating Tennyson's poetry) was surely worthy of being printed in many a journal or magazine of the day.
I liked the analogy of the ant colony as a comparison with the workings of the house. The skullery maid and her daily duty of beetle collecting was a nicely Hardyesque touch, as was her tragic fate (like Fanny in Far From the Madding Crowd.)
The writing of William and Matty's ant book was well done, especially the ambitious, provocative coda which mused on freedom of action and predestination.
Best of all were the moments that poetically illustrated the emotions of the characters. The clouds of butterflies and moths, in the context of William and Eugenia's attraction, was a very powerful scene, again worthy of Hardy. Sadly, some of the rest of the story failed to come up to such a standard. Overall it was not the sum of its highly promising parts.
The plot twist featuring the brother had shock value, but was undone with the fatuous inclusion of the INSECT anagram in the following scene. It seemed too contrived, and I felt manipulated bythe author. And why did we have to have to endure in its entirety that tedious meandering fairy story of Matty's, "Things are not what they seem"? I went off the character of Matty by the time I'd waded through that section.
Overall then, a very promising set-up which goes off the rails somewhat. A shame. I would be interested to see the film that was made of this story, and whether some of the weaker elements were ironed out.