You know that feeling when you enter a grand, old church with a soaring ceiling and dispassionate statues and although its empty and echoing, you still somehow feel as if you’re being watched?
That is what reading Bridget Collin’s ‘The Betrayals’ feels like.
The much anticipated second novel from the author of ‘The Binding’ is published by The Borough Press and is a detailed and focused lesson on the intense and the oppressive. The story follows disgraced politician Léo Martin as he returns to his old boarding school, Montverre, the site of a violent and life-defining tragedy that disrupted his final year there. As old ghosts and secrets come crawling out of the walls and the traditions and untouchability of the once-revered school comes under pressure from the outside forces of the ominous ‘Party’, the lies that the character’s lives were built on begin to crumble.
As you read this book, you will feel as if someone is constantly tapping at your shoulder saying, ‘Look closer, all is not as it seems’. Haunted and haunting, the complexity of connecting and weaving plots and characters has your head spinning in the best of ways. Definitely a little confusing at first, this book needs to be settled into, but that task is made easier by the vivid and lustrous characters, ripe with emotions and immediacy.
We flash back and forth in time, moving between the present (told from a few different perspectives) and Léo’s past, which details the months leading up to the life-defining disaster and is told in diary form. The world building in this book is one of its most intriguing parts. Fantasy, with a good measure of dark academia, it is reminiscent of classics and modern classics like ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’.
The intense and heated friendship/rivalry between Léo and his schoolmate, Carfax, is the focus of the flashbacks, painting a portrait of arrogant and talented young men, with a relationship built on the foundation of competition as they each fight to out-do each other in the annual games. Dark and academic, the two boys’ chants roll off of the stone walls, their voices echoing and chasing you through the story as both narrators keep you at arm’s length. We stumble blindly along, unable to look away, yet unable to bear the picture that is being slowly revealed of lives of betrayal and lies as the past reveals the complexity of the present. When the jeu begins to corrupt their friendship, disaster threatens and builds like a storm and there is no shelter from its repercussions into the future.
In the present, when Léo returns to the site of the damage and encounters unknown connections that entangle their pasts and future, his life as part of the spectoral, constantly looming, political ‘Party’ unravels as Montverre and the grand jeu take over his life once more.
‘The Party’, while never actually getting much narrative attention, is a driving force behind the outside world trying to infiltrate and cheapen the traditions of Montverre and the grand jeu. Their cultural erasure policies are reminiscent of 1984’s ‘The Party’, intent on exterminating Christians, (whose liturgy is the basis for the grand jeu) and crushing Montverre’s otherness into conformity with government standards. Not much else is revealed about the reasoning behind these goals, which is definitely something I thought could be expanded upon in terms of fleshing out our understanding of this strange world, but bureaucracy is an effective specter, hovering in the background of the novel, constantly watching, constantly digging its sharpened fingernails into the spiritual fabric of the school, attempting to enforce inertia.
But what is the grand jeu? The mysterious focal point of the curriculum and life at Montverre, this elusive and inexplicable rite that cannot be accurately explained because we are never made privy to this holy and dangerous game.
‘The grand jeu is about God, but it means God isn’t there, because otherwise there’d be no need for it…it’s crazy but it’s perfect. It makes me angry that it’s so weirdly powerful.’
The best summation I can think of is that it is the random algorithms and coincidences of life, of poetry, of maths, of music, of nature all rolled into one ritualistic dance or ceremony or act, only to be understood by us readers in abstract. The pattern of falling rain, of the veins in leaves blending with an obscure mathematical theorem that explains the pattern and a musical theme threads through it describing the entire process. This is an almost monastic life they live, a vocational enslavement to the creation of these games, a calling to something higher. Something more dangerous. Something that hums in the dark echoing corridors, and it knows your name and whispers it as you sleep. Reaching for something dark and holy beyond us, we trail along in our own dance macabre in silent convulsions, as one must be silent in a museum or a gallery, as the grand jeu weaves its dark tapestry in our minds.
‘He can still remember; the chime of a bell, the swell of a melody, the algorithm dying while the breathless tune went on…the clicking of dancing bones, flowers and rigor mortis and worms. A feast in a catacomb. A poet being painted in his shroud.’
We are left constantly questioning. Is it glorified chess? A hunger games situation? Torture? The tuning of the universe? And while our minds turn in endless circles trying to understand, the world Collins creates becomes a snare and a spider’s web that slowly entangles you before you ever know it’s there. Mystical, ancient, academic, oppressively forceful in its pervasiveness, the inherent wrongness of the school and the world beyond it dogs your every step. We can see the influence of the theatre training that Collins has undertaken in the power she gives each movement and the force behind each gesture, the theatricality of the jeu and the lives the characters construct around it.
This book is a study of drinking in the world around you like wine, gorging yourself on knowledge and hoping to spew God back out. The most insane of plot twist makes you want to go back and reread it all again just to stop the haunting feel you’ve been misled. Fierce academic competitiveness, rigorous study and an intense thirst for knowledge makes us think of 'Dead Poet’s Society', but even then, you’re only halfway there. This is not the cheerful Robin Williams, ‘Oh captain, my captain’ part, more the kid committing suicide part. Secret passageways and musty, age-wizened books, breathless stirrings of coming of age and the loss of innocence combine to create a book like nothing else I’ve ever read before. Austere and dangerous and beautiful. Baroque and ghoulish and heavy.
‘She closes her eyes and imagines herself on the silver terra of the Great Hall, her arms raised. How long has she been dreading it? Before she always loved that moment, immediately after the ouverture, when you feel the weight of the audience’s gaze, when you wear their attention like a cloak…She can do it.’