Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Title: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
Author: A.S. Byatt

Genre: Fiction (Norse Mythology / WWII / Childhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Grove Press (2/1/2012)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Liked with hardcore swooning.
Did I finish?: Yes -- savored over a week.
One-sentence summary: A young girl experiences

Do I like the cover?: I do although I don't think it captures the feel of the story, either Byatt's little girl or the Norse mythology.

I'm reminded of...: Jeanette Winterson

First line: There was a thin child, who was three years old when the world war began.

Do... I love the Canongate Myth series so hardcore?: YES. I'd elope with it if I weren't already married and it was legal.

Did... I bookmark so many passages because the language was amazing?: YES. 53 of 193 pages were bookmarked because of some gorgeous, delicious turn-of-phrase, and that was me limiting myself!!

Did... I seriously fall in love with line after line?: YES. I struggled to limit myself with my GoodReads status updates.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- it's an introduction to Norse mythology for those new to it and those familiar with Norse mythology might enjoy revisiting it.

Why did I get this book?: If it's part of the Canongate Myth series, I'm all over it, and of course, if it's by Byatt, I'm there.

Review: This skinny book is really a novella, closed with a brief essay. And in that way Byatt does so well, this small book on Norse mythology also tells a story of marriage and motherhood, war, loss, escapism, violence. Insidious, along the edges of the larger story, what seems to be a straight-forward retelling of some aspects of Norse mythology actually tells us a story of World War II, Byatt-as-a-child, and the way a good story can help us escape our reality.

Unlike some of the other Canongate Myth pieces, Byatt doesn't twist or warp or reinvent the myth she's chosen. Norse mythology has never been a big passion of mine so I didn't have that immediate connection with the story that I've had with other books but Byatt's (possibly?) autobiographical 'thin girl' and the World War II setting pulled me in. I might not have connected with the story of Ragnarok, but I immediately understood the magic of reading, the absorption of a compelling, alternative world on a lonely imagination.

Byatt's thin girl reads a volume of Norse mythology, an English edition that extols rather warmly the impact of Old German on the myth cycle. The play of the 'good Germans' from the book and the 'bad Germans' of WWII was interesting ("Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky", p17) and poignant: enemies and friends are so easily made and unmade.

Unsurprisingly, the language is gorgeous but simple, poetical and lyrical and moving. ("Baldur went, but he did not come back. The thin child sorted in her new mind things that went and came back, and things that went and did not come back. Her father with his flaming hair was flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew in her soul that he would not come back.", p86) Byatt's narrative reads like a collection of myths, myth-of-the-thin-girl and myth of Ragnarok, and every page invites rereading.

Byatt's closing essay was interesting -- about why she chose to tell the story as she did, what she had hoped to do, what she didn't do -- but I wish it hadn't been included. I made the mistake of reading it immediately upon finishing, and it took some of the warmth away from the story as I chewed over her analysis rather than the feelings she provoked in me.


  1. Ok, I've seen like three different covers for this book, so if I buy it, I don't even know what I'll get.

    Noooo don't say it reminds you of Winterson! That makes me want to read it less! But I love Byatt (some of the time), so it's been on my list for a whiles. And I'm glad she doesn't warp things like The Penelopiad, which just angried up my blood. Byatt writes THE most beautiful sentences. That's most of what I retained from Possession. So I'm glad that's in evidence here.

  2. I know, the multiple covers has confused me -- I got this file from the Grove Atlantic publicist, so it's the cover for that edition at least (US). The other two are the UK hardcover/paperback -- I think.

    If it helps, I'm reminded more of earlier Winterson rather than later Winterson, and it definitely did not remind me of The Penelopiad. It's very straight up myth retelling and the language is dead.gorgeous. In that sense, I think you'll be in love. I'd have included all the quotes I loved, but then I would have essentially been retyping the whole thing.

  3. I have read one of her books...Persuasion? Hm, something. I did like her style and perhaps I should read more

  4. I have only read one book by Byatt and it was amazingly lush and evocative. It sounds like I need to get it together and read this one as well. I love how much you loved it, and think I would enjoy it too. Fantastic review!

  5. Audra- This was my first foray into Norse mythology, and I'd like to know what I should read next. Any suggestions?

  6. I just started reading it today and agree about the language being gorgeous. I'm not sure how I feel about some aspects of what she's doing, but I'm interested to see where it all goes.

  7. Ah, Norse mythology! I would love to read this novella...thanks for the good've captured my interest.

  8. Oooh, it's gotta be good to have hardcore swooning going on. Lol. I saw this on NetGalley but wasn't sure if I'd like it. After reading your thoughts it makes me wonder. I've always wanted to read Byatt, just haven't gotten around to it.

  9. this is one author that I have never read, however, in the past year have acquired a few of the author's books.

  10. After reading Peter Geye's Safe From The Sea (one of my new favorite books ever), I became interested in Norse mythology; it plays a huge role in the main character's father's life, as he almost died on a ship called the Ragnarok. I think I would like this one!

  11. I have 25 days left to read this through NetGalley. I just keep forgetting it!

  12. A lovely and intriguing review - I love your descriptions of the language and am so curious about the Norse mythology. I really have to get around to reading this author!

  13. I wasn't familiar with the Canongate series (how?) before this book came out, but I'm so intrigued by them all, I can't wait to dig in. I have a copy of this one and must make time for it soon!