Monday, June 08, 2009

The Children's Book

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoledBoots
Volume 9, Number 2

by A.S. Byatt

I'm really confused. I don't know what to say about this book although 24 hours ago I had this whole review mentally written and it was such a volcanic scold it was going to spontaneously combust my screen as I typed it.

A.S. Byatt is probably best-known for her novel Possession, which was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart and Jeremy Northam. I picked up The Children's Book because I had liked this adaptation of Possession (which is kind of a silly reason, books and their adaptations being, in the usual run of things, two distinct and dissimilar entities). Also, I thought the precis sounded nice - gentle and pastoral, nonthreatening. Philosophical.

The Children's Book is a story about a group of children from about six families. The families are mostly British and are all more or less related to and acquainted with each other. The parents are mostly bohemian socialists: some of them are members of the Fabian Society, some are early suffragettes, most are artists.

The story spans the years between 1895 and 1919 - a turbulent time in Britain and Europe. As time passes, the children grow into young adults, with complicated life stories and problems both grave and trivial. It's a little tricky at first to keep straight which children were born to which parents - at one point I decided to draw their family trees on a separate sheet, but I never did simply because I couldn't find a pencil.

Children flickered and flitted along the flowerbeds and in and out of the shrubbery as the light thickened.

The writing is lovely. There are beautiful, moving passages in this book. There are whole sections with the most softly-turned language, with delicate phrasing and limpid images. These occur especially in the first third of the novel, when the children are young and times are, by the standards of the characters, simpler.

Philip's lantern, with its painted flames and smoke, and elegant, sinister forms, had been given a place of honour in a herbaceous border, standing on an uneven terra-cotta pillar. As its candle burned down, it had wavered and flared. Then it had fallen into the surrounding vegetation, which was a mixture of ferns, brackens, fennels and poppes, both the great silky Shirley poppies and self-sown wild ones.

In this respect, the author has done a marvelous job - the tone of the descriptive passages changes throughout, acquiring by the end a kind of starkness that made me flinch. Byatt brings the reader along at the same pace as the characters, taking us from simplicity and innocence to brokenness and bitter experience in a little over 600 pages.

The novel follows not just the families, whose relationships get quite tangled at times, but also the social and political forces at work in Europe as a whole. And this, really, is my one problem with the book. It's ambitious, and sometimes it feels like the author has overreached. Between the many, many names of contemporary philosophers, artists, politicians, monarchs, societies and places, I started to feel like I was attending a historical sociology lecture, with family photos in between the bulleted powerpoint slides.

In June 1909 King Edward VII opened Sir Aston Webb's new buildings for the Victoria and Albert Museum. He opened them with a golden key, with a stem of steel damascened with gold. The long white buildings, which had emerged slowly from their wrappings of tarpaulin, and thickets of scaffolding, were judged to be rhythmic and lovely, were compared to symphonies and chorales. The opening was attended by a glistening crowd of courtiers and dignitaries. The Webbs were there, and Alma-Tadema, with Balfour, Churchill and the prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Reading The Children's Book, I found it difficult to follow the tone change between the bare facts of the sociopolitical infrastructure, as it were, and the smaller events of the families I had come to care about. It was hard to suspend my disbelief when real events and real people, dates noted, kept intruding on the flow of the primary narrative.

My final note on The Children's Book, though, is this: I absolutely get the feeling that there is more to this story than meets the reader on her first journey through it. I missed something....I feel as though I should start from page one again. It's not "Oh crap I missed something because this makes no sense to me", it's "this book was subtler than I realised, and now I need a do-over in order to sort out all the foreshadowing."

Which is a good thing.

And it also means I won't be giving my copy away to one of you, as I had first intended. The Children's Book needs a re-read...and I believe I'll even add Possession to my summer book list.

HSB Highly Specialised Book Rating System
The Children's Book gets

Reread? Yes
Given to Others? Yes
Bookplate? Yes

which is an enormous surprise even to me.


Dave Hingsburger said...

Well, well, well, you did a rethink after we talked the other day, didn't you? And good on you for actually thinking before writing a review of another's work. This is exactly the kind of book we read. We like historical fiction and we like this period. Let us know what it's like on second go around. (Right now we're reading the Charles Todd murder mysteries set just after the first world war ... starting from the first and working through th 10 or 12 there are of them. I'm on book 3.)

Emily said...

Wow, I actually quite love that passage you cited about the unveiling of the V&A. "A stem of steel damascened with gold" is a gorgeous phrase. I've been meaning to check out Byatt's work for ages; thanks for the nudge in that direction.

carlarey said...

I love reading about that period of history. I need a vacation book and 600 pages sounds like a nice size. No real danger of running out of book halfway through the trip.

Jodi said...

Sounds very interesting! I do think that Byatt tends to get bogged down with details. Her writing is always lovely, but some descriptions go on too long. I'm putting this one on my to-read list.

Valerie said...

I might take a look at this book. However, my experience with A.S. Byatt is that she is an intellectual elitist....or perhaps just a plain snob. Your review suggests that may be the case with this book as well.

After all, has a writer really done their job if they intentionally write over the heads of most readers?

Thanks for the review, Shan!

Anonymous said...

Any A.S. Byatt is not only a must-read but a must-buy for me (unlike her estranged sister, Margaret Drabble, whose books I make sure to borrow from the library) - I read Byatt's over and over, and I actually love how much else I learn while reading. As a toiler in science, I love how much science she often manages to work in, especially in the last of her 4 "Frederica Potter" novels, A Whistling Woman. Often I find anyone who doesn't like to learn can still enjoy her books for the plot - for instance, I just skipped all her "Victorian" poetry in Possession but enjoyed all the academic bitchiness and the two or three love stories.

Thanks for this, Shan.

- Beth

lizbon said...

Well that's a pretty interesting 180 you did there. I have to admit, I wouldn't have the patience for such a book.

jillish said...

Thank you for the review. You might also enjoy 'the virgin in the garden' quartet. I have yet to see any short story book reviews, but my favorite Byatt is 'the djinn and the nightenhale'. Her wicked sense of character development lends itself well to grown up 'fairy tales' (think Grimm Bros. not Disney).

YTT said...

Thanks for this - it got my Byatt wheels turning again. I loved "Possession" with a passion and have never again been able to get into one of her books, though I sometimes lug them along with me on vacation. I think I've been scared I wouldn't like them as much as "Possession." (Though usually when you like a book by an author you want to go out and read more...)

But I think a lot of people have a love/hate thing with her. Or, in your case, hate/love.