The Betrayals by Bridget Collins
Bridget Collins’ The Betrayals is one of those unique novels which you finish reading and feel bereft. Really, there is nothing for it than to open it up again at chapter one and, all over again, lose yourself in the richness of language, the resonance of another world and draw close once more to the complex and captivating characters who live there.
In her first adult novel, The Binding, Collins demonstrated her skill and inventiveness in creating an alternative world. The world of The Betrayals is equally arresting, though, this is a darker, bleaker place. In both novels the reader is drawn into a setting which is somewhat bewildering; is this a post-apocalyptic setting or are we somewhere in the past? Is this a country we know or is it entirely imaginative?
Collins draws from history in the creation of her setting, at the same time there are intimations to modern life with the present rise of the far right. The reader recognises shades of Nazi Germany in the rise of The Party within a despairing and impoverished society. While, initially, there is optimism and idealistic aims, citizen’s rights are gradually eroded, minority groups are deprived of their entitlements and society is encompassed in an over-riding sense of fear and threat.
The narrative deftly moves between past and present. Leo Martin was, at one time, a student at Montverre, where the brightest and most talented young men are closeted and study for the grand jeu, an ancient and highly regarded game. Leo, as a member of the main group of students, the ‘in’ crowd, has no qualms about tormenting those who, the group regards as less important and weaker than themselves.
A tragedy occurs and Leo leaves Montverre, distinguishes himself within The Party, but when his conscience bothers him enough to object to even more extreme sanctions against minority groups he is dismissed from his post and sent once more to Montverre. He meets the Magister Ludi, the head of the school, scandalously a woman, and is again drawn into the intricacies and richness of the grand jeu.
The grand jeu is never entirely explained but it is a game grounded in history and humanity, with the themes, the allusions to music, to literature, to dance and, finally, the ultimate aim of truth. Almost, the structure and theme of the novel reflects the complexity and resonance of the game in the elegance of the writing, the constantly shifting narrative and the beautifully drawn characters.
Reviewer: Paddy Richardon
The Borough Press: imprint of HarperCollins