Book Review: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins
The Betrayals is the latest book from Bridget Collins, an artistic nod to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, written with Collins’s unmistakeably rich and lyrical style. Collins’s debut adult novel, The Binding was an astounding piece of writing and expectations were high for her next offering.
The Guardian’s Stevie Davies describes The Betrayals as a game that is ‘played by the author with and against the reader.’ For me, The Betrayals reflect the games we play with in our efforts to construct ourselves.
The Betrayals takes place at the mysterious Montverre Academy, a school where boys study the grand jeu, also known as ‘the game’. The grand jeu is a mix of music, maths, movement and arguably magic. However, the mechanics and visuals of the game remain unexplained and intangible.
The story is told from three POV characters: the rat, Leo Martin and Claire Dryden.
The rat, a young girl who lives at the school in secret, opens the novel and introduces the arcane world of Montverre Academy—part school, part seminary. She sees all as she scurries through the walls and hidden rooms.
Leo Martin is an ex-student of Montverre and now a disgraced political sent back to in exile under the guise of scholarship. Once a gold medallist the grand jeu, Leo is forced to confront past trauma at his former school.
Claire Dryden is the first female Magister Ludi (head teacher) of Montverre and already harbours a burning hatred for Leo. She must prove her value at the school by delivering her first ‘summer game’ but the pressures of Leo’s presence and her own past threaten to undo her life’s ambition.
The Betrayals is a complex blend of romance, mystery, fantasy, historical reflection, gothic and political thriller set in a dystopian authoritarian world. The politics of ‘The Party’ lurk in the background but, like the game, are an implicit threat rather than a fleshed-out reality.
This obfuscation is a theme that runs throughout the book. The setting is overwhelming and rich with possibility, but Collins keeps the perspective tightly focussed upon the inward journey of her characters. While some reviewers have criticised Collins for her trail of world-building breadcrumbs, I feel the mystery of the outside world drives the reader and characters to the interior. This is a journey into the heart of darkness, searching for the light at the centre of what it is to be human.
The romantic threads of the novel explore love and attraction as a connection between two people, undefined or inhibited by gender. Yet, gender is one of the largest constraints of the novel. Only boys may study at Montverre and until Claire Dryden is accidentally appointed, only men could be magisters. Women in the world of ‘The Party’ are bound to the tenets of ‘Home, Husband and Happiness’.
Within this oppressive landscape, the grand jeu becomes a sanctuary of equality and independence.
I loved this book, but perhaps I would have loved it more if I’d read it before The Binding. It’s difficult for an author whose previous novel is exceptional to live up to a reader’s heightened expectations. To be fair to Collins, The Betrayals is beautiful. It pulses with rhythm and cadence, matching the grand jeu in its intricacy. The recurring imagery and cinching plot arcs explore the core of what makes us human, like a quickening heartbeat.
Bridget Collins is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. Her romantic narratives are deeply moving and speak to the profound and wordless emotions that drive human connection. I wanted to know more about the grand jeu, and I wonder if this is one of those rare books that would translate well to film, where the visual elements of the game can create a sense of its depth and beauty.
The Betrayals is as dazzlingly clever as the grand jeu but lacks the heart-wrenching connection of The Binding. It’s as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one, which I enjoy, but somehow it didn’t grip me in the same way. This is a book that can be studied. A book that can be written about and probably should be.
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