Message from the old world order

ANGELS AND INSECTS By A.S. Byatt (Chatto, $299) Reviewed by JESSICA CARTER A.S. Byatt's latest offering is the reviewer's nightmare: it is extremely easy to put down. Set in Victorian England and cleverly written it nevertheless fails to grip you. The ants in Morpho Eugenia, the first of twin novellas, have a sharper bite than the tale itself.

Entomology is a central theme of Morpho Eugenia, while the second novella, The Conjugial Angel deals with spiritualism in the 1870s.

In both tales Byatt tackles the question of ''the universe''. The former puts the human race under the microscope and likens our behaviour to the instinctive behaviour of the insignificant ant; the latter is based on attempts by grieving Victorians to explore beyond the boundaries of life on earth through mediums.

In Morpho Eugenia naturalist William Adamson comes back to England after 10 years in the Amazon. A shipwreck has swept away most of his specimens and research along with his dreams of fame and fortune. He is therefore pleased to be offered residence at Bredely Hall, home of the Reverend Alabaster.

In return he is expected to put in order the Rev Alabaster's confused collection of natural oddities. He also has to help the clergyman marry his religious beliefs with his interest in science and Darwinian thought.

It is not just destitution which encourages Adamson to accept this offer. For Rev Alabaster's daughter, Eugenia, has captured his heart At Bredely Hall, he is depressed by cataloguing dead specimens and longing to observe living creatures again, turns his attention to the ants in the grounds of the house. The ant colonies he studies serve as a microcosm of humanity.


As the tale progresses, the throb of hidden desires and primal needs beats louder and louder through the seemingly civilised world of Bredely Hall.

The second work proves dull in comparison despite its fascinating subject matter: life after death. It concerns Tennyson's In Memoriam, published in 1850, mourning the death 17 years earlier of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister Emily.

In this bizarre ghost story, Byatt explores the relationships between mediums and those who visit them.

The book is wordy and written in a style which echoes Victorian literature but makes it difficult to follow. Great writers like Dickens and Hardy, strike a chord in the common soul. Despite the age of their work it can still ignite the imagination of modern readers, something Byatt's fails to do.