I’ve loved some of A.S. Byatt‘s other works—Possession and The Children’s Book (both novels) and The Matisse Stories (a collection of short stories)—and wanted to read more. Angels and Insects is a collection of two novellas: “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugial Angel.”
“Morpho Eugenia” begins on a promising note, with a ball at the Alabaster family’s upper-class Victorian home: “The shimmering girls whirled past in the candlelight, shell-pink and sky-blue, silver and citron, gauze and tulle.” A lovely image, artfully described.
But visitor William Adamson feels like a fish out of water: he’s just survived a shipwreck following an extended insect-collecting expedition in the Amazon. As he admires the “pale-gold and ivory creatures” on the dance floor, he can’t help remembering “olive-skinned and velvet-brown ladies of doubtful virtue and no virtue.” As Adamson grows more entangled with the Alabasters, he struggles to maintain his identity as a scientist by observing ant colonies with the family’s children.
Unfortunately, Byatt bogs down her own narrative by including her characters’ narratives: Adamson’s observations of ant behavior, a fable by one of the family’s many female hangers-on, and the Rev. Alabaster’s ponderous attempts to square emerging principles of evolution with Christian faith.
Getting through these passages was a challenge; they were long and felt like padding to turn a short story into a novella. They presented themes and imagery relevant to the story—but at what cost to the reader’s patience!
While I liked the overall story, I was disappointed in this reading experience. So much so that I haven’t had the heart to delve into the second novella—yet.