A Review of Bridget Collins’ “The Betrayals”
Ambiguity for Ambiguity’s Sake?
There’s a famous (to me) quote from John Wayne about ambiguity, used as the epigraph to Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape. It goes, “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.” Well, if John Wayne were still alive today, it would be easy to say that he wouldn’t like Bridget Collins’ second novel for adults (after having written several novels for young adults), The Betrayals, all too much. Elements of this story are as ambiguous as they come. Inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1943 novel, The Glass Bead Game, The Betrayals is about the players of a mysterious game called the grand jeu. What is the grand jeu? Hard to say. It incorporates elements of music and math (among other things), but how you would play the game in real life is left to the imagination. This is a failing of the novel. Unlike (and I hate to bring up the name of this transgender-phobic author) J. K. Rowling’s Quidditch, which you can play for real in a modified way, it is not clear how the grand jeu works in this book at all. That is to say, you couldn’t play it in real life based on the description it gets here.
That said, perhaps this is not really the point of the novel because you can use the grand jeu to be a metaphor for life itself. (After all, nobody knows what it takes to win at the game of life, right?) Instead, it might be best to focus on the players of the game itself. The novel takes place over two time periods, though what periods they are is kind of ambiguous — could one of them be the 1930s with references to a stock market crash and a Great Depression? Anyhow, the first (and earlier) period sees a student of the grand jeu, Léo Martin, studying the game at an all-male mountainous academy, which is called Montverre, in an unspecified European country. He is in competition with a man named Aimé de Courcy Carfax, with whom Léo has a rather love-hate relationship. However, this relationship ends in tragedy during the culmination of the pair’s second year of studies at the academy when Léo and not Aimé wins a Gold Medal for his work. The second period sees a thirtysomething Léo return to Montverre in exile from a position he has in the country’s ruling fascist party of the time, only to discover that the first female Magister Ludi (kind of a headmaster of the school and a teacher rolled into one role) has a passing familiarity to someone he once knew. This is not to mention that there is a somewhat unrelated subplot involving a young woman who thinks she’s a rat protecting a Christian student from the fascists, and you have the bulk of the description about this book.
A lot is going on with this novel, no doubt, and I’m trying to be as vague as possible to not leave any spoilers. The ending is a bit surprising, even if it is not wholly original (shades of M. Butterfly), and is only successful because it exists in a book. All in all, The Betrayals is a frustrating read to a certain extent because it is so vague and ambiguous — and would be the type of ambiguity that would lead to perversion in John Wayne’s mind, though I seek to make no judgments myself. Again, the setting is not specified, though Collins references France and England as fellow countries in her text. The period of the novel’s setting is similarly vague at best, as mentioned, so we’re never too sure if the fascists are a mirror of the German Nazi party— simply because it is not clear if the story takes place in Germany or not. You have to read a good portion of this novel before it becomes clear that Collins is merely taking liberties with retelling the story of the rise of Nazism in Germany during the ’30s at all — so the book can be rather confusing to say the least. When a car pulls up to deliver some baggage to Montverre early on, you don’t know how the car should look like: modern, or something from another era? I suppose this vagueness is Collins’ way of saying that the story could happen at any time, but the details do matter as they do gradually (sort of) emerge as the story is being told.
I’m on the fence with The Betrayals for that reason and others. It does boast a thrilling and exciting conclusion, but you’ll have to endure a ponderous and boring midsection to get there. I’m also not sure that switching the persecuted religious sect from the Jewish peoples to the Christians in the period that this book takes place (again, presumably the 1930s) was the best move — after all, Christians have been persecuted through the centuries, but never as bad as the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Thus, to invert the two religions smacks as a form of sacrilege to me. It’s kind of saying that the Jewish peoples didn’t get a bad deal under fascism, and it’s not clear in this novel then if the bad guys (ie. the fascists) are atheists or are Jewish themselves! So the fact that this book is so mysterious and ambiguous does pose a bit of a larger problem.
I’m a proponent of the “say what you mean and mean what you say” school of thought, so I had issues with the lack of detail in this book. I get that Collins is perhaps trying to get readers to use their minds, but I think for the novel to be more successful than it was, it needed to be clearer on many fronts. This is especially true of the depiction of the grand jeu, which has to make sense as a performance piece for it to resonate with readers instead of just being a bunch of imprecise and unclear mumbo-jumbo that makes it verge on the border of magic — even though I don’t think The Betrayals is trying too hard to be a magic realism sort of work.
All in all, The Betrayals is compelling to a point but is also an interesting failure. It needed to be more precise to be more of a success. I’m not sure why Collins needed to smear the reality of the period in which the book was set, and it would have been just as — if not more — potent if the villains of the piece were actually Nazis and the grand jeu really was a form of magic incantation that they were afraid of. You may feel free to agree or disagree with John Wayne’s perception of ambiguity, but one thing remains: The Betrayals is an unclear read. And that’s a bit of a problem when you’re trying to make a point, which I think is what Bridget Collins tries and fails to do here.
Bridget Collins’ The Betrayals was published by William Morrow on May 18, 2021.
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