It is apt that Booker Prize–winning English writer Byatt chooses to locate her reimagining of the Norse myth Asgard and the Gods, which describes the destruction of the world, during that most apocalyptic of times in British history, the blitz. The little girl at the center of the story, whom we know only as “the thin child,” has been evacuated, with her mother, from London to the idyllic countryside. Her father is a fighter pilot who’s “in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only exist in books.” The thin child goes to church and reads Pilgrim’s Progress, but finds the concept of “gentle Jesus” naïve and untenable in the face of war. Asgard and the Gods, on the other hand, provides, if not a more believable narrative, one that at least reflects the world she lives in: “It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.” The only question that nags at her is how “the good and wise Germans” who wrote it can be the same people bringing terror to the skies over her head at night. Told in lush prose, describing vividly drawn gods and their worlds, this is a book that brings the reader double pleasure; we return to the feeling of reading—or being read—childhood myths, but Byatt (Possession) also invites us to grapple with very grown-up intellectual questions as well. A highly unusual and deeply absorbing book. (Feb.)
“Color and sensation flood Byatt’s writing . . . One of the most brilliant minds and speakers of our generation.” Independent
“Majestic . . . Dazzling . . . Wonderful . . . . What you see here . . . is the strength and fire of Byatt’s imagination.” The San Francisco Chronicle
“Bristling with life and invention. . . . A seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer.” The Washington Post
“Spellbinding. . . . Alive . . . Potent. . . . Byatt is a master storyteller.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“Proves that a serious, intricate book can also be a page turner . . . Manifest intelligence, subtle humor and extraordinary texturing of the past within the present make Possession original and unforgettable.” - Time Magazine
Byatt's retelling of Norse mythology has the fearsome immediacy of modern apocalyptic fiction. The novel's only modern character, a young British girl immersed in reading Asgard and the Gods during World War II—surely Byatt herself—is barely fleshed out; Byatt calls her "the thin girl" in an ironic wink. But through her we feel that impending wartime doom, even as we are treated to the poetical lushness of both the English landscape and the mythical Norse world, the latter more wild than any medieval bestiary. And we learn the power of plot and story, which are stronger than the gods, who knew the end was coming but could do nothing to stop it. The Götterdämmerung can be interpreted on many levels: Loki's daughter Jormungandr, a serpent who greedily eats almost any sea life she encounters until she grows so large that she encircles the world and bites herself painfully on the tail, is a prescient metaphor for our ecological shortsightedness. Byatt's vision is grim and unredemptive; she rejects any Christian interpretation as a corruption of the original myth. VERDICT Required reading for those interested in Byatt, Norse mythology, or stirring story craft.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
A multilayered retelling of the end of the world from Norse mythology, framed by the award-winning British novelist's analysis of how myth relates to her own work. This slim volume doesn't invite comparison with the expansive novels of Byatt (Possession, 1991, etc.). As she explains, "Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology." Yet her narrative strategy recasts the myth through the perception of a reader known only as the "thin child in wartime," a British girl whose name and age are unknown, who finds resonance in this war of the Gods with the war from which she doesn't expect her father to return. Byatt invites some identification of this girl with the author by dedicating this book to her own mother, "Who gave me Asgard and the Gods," a primary source for this retelling. The girl compares the myth of world's end with the Christian faith into which she was born, and to Pilgrim's Progress, which she has also been reading. "Bunyan's tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so, Asgard and the Gods. That book was an account of a mystery, of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end." The girl doesn't come to believe in the Norse gods, a worshipper of Odin and Thor, but the reading experience leads the author to the conclusion that "the Christian story was another myth, the same kind of story about the nature of things, but less interesting and exciting." While the narrative illuminates the essence and meaning of myth, particularly as it shapes a young girl's wartime experience, it also serves as an environmentalist parable, one where we are "bringing about the end of the world we were born into." Though the cadences are like those of a fairy tale, a narrative seen through the eyes of a child, the chilling conclusion is not.