Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review: The Children's Book, by AS Byatt

From the inside flap, since this is so complicated:
Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, interviewed with her children gathered at her knee. For each of them she writes a separate private book, bound in different colours and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh they play in a story-book world - but their lives, and those of their rich cousins, children of a city stockbroker, and their friends, the son and daughter of a curator at the new Victoria and Albert Museum, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries their own secrets. Into their world comes a young stranger, a working-class boy from the potteries, drawn by the beauty of the Museum's treasures. And in midsummer a German puppeteer arrives, bringing dark dramas. The world seems full of promise but the calm is already rocked by political differences, by Fabian arguments about class and free love , by the idealism of anarchists from Russia and Germany. The sons rebel against their parents' plans; the girls dream of independent futures, becoming doctors or fighting for the vote. This vivid, rich and moving saga is played out against the great, rippling tides of the day, taking us from the Kent marshes to Paris and Munich and the trenches of the Somme. Born at the end of the Victorian era, growing up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, a whole generation grew up unaware of the darkness ahead. In their innocence, they were betrayed unintentionally by the adults who loved them. In a profound sense, this novel is indeed the children's book.

The only other of AS Byatt’s novel’s I’ve read is Possession, which I wasn’t so keen on (started it twice; got halfway through the first time and finished the second, but never really enjoyed it). I decided to give Byatt another try with The Children’s Book, and I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed with it.

To be honest, the book is impressive; it covers the period from 1895 through the first World War, a time when a lot of change was in the air. Byatt bites off a lot in this book, and although it’s clear that she’s done a lot of research on her subject matter(s), often she often simply dumps information on her reader—I learned a lot more than I ever wanted to about pottery kilns, or the Fabian movement. Byatt introduces way too many characters within the first fifty pages or so, more than I could keep track of (heck, she introduces three of them in the very first sentence!). This prevented me from fully connecting with Byatt’s characters. And she gives way too much background information on her characters, way too early (of the “she was born in 1884, and then….” type). I do like back stories, but I’d rather have them unfold slowly as the plot develops.

I found it very difficult to kept my attention focused on this novel—it moves very, very slowly, meandering here and there with no real direction. The story jumps from one group of characters to the next, without really explaining to the reader why these people are important to the story. The author’s prose is also a bit strong, too, as is her way with dialogue. This was the kind of book where I’d have to read fifty pages or so, put it down and come back to it later. It’s not the kind of novel that’s so good that I wanted to finish it in one sitting (kind of hard for anyone to do, really; The Children’s Book is well over 600 pages long). I know this has been longlisted for the Booker Prize, so I know I should like it in some way (and indeed, I liked the idea), but I’m just not a fan of AS Byatt’s novels, I guess.

Also reviewed by: Books I Done Read, Medieval Bookworm, The Boston Bibliophile


Amanda said...

I haven't read anything of hers yet but plan on it next year. I still want to read this one, even though it's a long book. Good to know about the dumping on of characters and history. Yikes! I hate when authors overwhelm the readers with too much information.

Kristen M. said...

I might be in the same boat as you and just not a Byatt fan. I picked up Possession only once and didn't get very far in it because I just couldn't connect with her characters. I'm not sure if this means I should give her another try or just move on and not waste any more time.

S. Krishna said...

I haven't read any Byatt yet, though I do want to read both Possession and The Children's Book. I still want to read them, but your review has tempered my expectations. Thanks!

Anna Claire said...

This was one on my TBR list, but it sounds daunting. I always mean to make it through books like that, but it's a chore dragging myself back to them when they don't hold my attention. I'll keep your review in mind if I do decide to read this one.

Ashley Howland said...

Thanks for the review, I much prefer high action books, so although this one sounds interesting I don't think it would be for me.

Madeleine said...

I love Byatt's short stories, and I liked Possession quite a bit, but some of her other novels have been misses for me. I'll definitely read The Children's Book, but you saved me the cover price - I'll try it at the library first.

Jen said...

Thanks for the review. I've been seeing this title all over the place and was trying to figure out if I should grab it. Maybe I'll wait a bit longer.


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