The Battle of the Sun
Jeanette Winterson Bloomsbury, 400pp, hb
The Battle of the Sun is the tangential sequel to Tanglewreck (2006), Jeanette Winterson’s earlier novel for children. Possibly, given the emphasis on movement in time, it is Tanglewreck’s prequel, or even the other part of a diptych, separate but intimately related, for the two books share several characters and some previously referenced events are re-examined. Whereas Tanglewreck, preoccupied as it was with people seeking to control time, clearly owed a debt to the science fiction genre, The Battle of the Sun appears to be more akin to a fantasy novel. If I seem hesitant in saying this, it is because I am mindful that Winterson seeks to refuse genre labels (she has said that ‘real books cannot be labelled in any meaningful way’) but also, in part, because the novel itself seems curiously uncertain about its own nature.
The Battle of the Sun is intended to be a children’s novel (Winterson wrote it for her god-daughters) but whereas a writer like Diana Wynne Jones seems able to engage simultaneously with adults and children, mainly by ignoring any perceived differences between them, Winterson’s narrative suggests that she is self-consciously aware of the presence of that younger audience, and as a result is holding back the ‘real’ story.
The story we learn is this: Jack Snap, who lives with his mother, and who is about to be apprenticed to a printer, is instead kidnapped on his twelfth birthday. He finds himself imprisoned with six other boys, the captives of a mysterious magus, who claims that Jack is the Radiant Boy, the child who will help him achieve his desire to transform London into gold and show the magnitude of his powers. Jack is a resourceful child, as one might expect, and immediately sets to work to win his freedom. This rapidly takes the form of what is clearly an alchemical quest, in which improbable objects must be found and impossible tasks undertaken.
While Jack’s adventures are overtly fantastical, his approach to them is very matter-of-fact. Winterson is clearly playing with the expectations raised by quests in fairytales, especially those involving boys called Jack, and so far as it goes, it is extremely enjoyable. The Battle of the Sun is perhaps most akin to some kind of theatrical spectacle, appropriate to London in 1601. It has dazzling set-pieces, including magical battles, and a cast of startling real and fantastical characters. There are some genuinely sad and shocking moments, and even a deux ex machina, admittedly a rather problematic one, not to mention an appropriate denouement. At almost the last moment in history when the real and the fantastical can comfortably co-exist, it seems entirely reasonable that there should still be dragons or mysterious half-people grown in bottles. And yet also the story possesses that sense of overly neat finality that one finds in Shakespearean comedy, with order a little too firmly restored, even though it is clear that the story’s deeper currents are still seething.
For there is clearly a darker side to this narrative which unfortunately remains occluded, apart from occasional, frustrating glimpses. One striking example is that Jack is frequently referred to by other characters as ‘Adam Kadmon’. The repetition of the name suggests it is significant, but this is not really explored, and for those with a limited knowledge of alchemy or Kabbalah, the extra layers of meaning are lost. Winterson constantly hints but refuses to engage. Perhaps she didn’t want to confuse her perceived audience, perhaps she genuinely didn’t know where that strand of story went and just left it to hang loose, teasing the reader. Either way, its half-presence points up the sense that so much is left unsaid, and that some of it needed to be spelled out.
In the end, I cannot decide whether Winterson tried to resist genre labels too hard and left herself with no place to stand, or whether she felt too constrained by her perceived audience to let rip imaginatively, but either way, The Battle of the Sun left me feeling frustrated. So much was happening just around the corner, but the author always held me back from going to look.