Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt



"Three or four families in an English village is the very thing to work on."  -- Jane Austen

It's probably quite unfair of me to begin this review by comparing it to another book.  I'm sure it was probably unwise for me to read The Children's Book almost immediately after reading and reviewing what appears to be a similar book, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  Honestly, it just worked out that way -- I'd actually started The Children's Book first, then realized I might not finish it in time to start The Forgotten Garden which was a book group selection.  (Since I run the book group, it would have been inexcusable for me to not to have finished it in time).  But as usual, I digress.

Anyhow, at first glance both of them are historical fiction, mostly set during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Both of them heavily feature English fairytales, and have central characters who are female writers and storytellers, and include entire sections with examples of the aforementioned tales, which are original to the books.  Both of them are long -- The Forgotten Garden is just over 550 pages, and The Children's Book weighs in at 675.  But almost immediately, I realized they are actually vastly different.

I can only give the bare bones of the setup for The Children's Book, because there is so much packed into it.  It's the story of four loosely connected families in Kent and London, set around the Fabian and Arts and Crafts movements in England around of the turn of the 20th century.  The story follows the parents and children against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian Era, the Edwardian Era, and finishes during WWI.

The story begins in the South Kensington Museum, which will someday be known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Two young teenage boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, are watching a third boy sketching in the museum.  They discover the boy, Philip Warren, has been hiding out in the museum's basement, having escaped poverty and dire conditions of the pottery works in the Five Towns area.  Tom's mother is Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales, who brought her son to the museum while she was consulting about her book with Julian's father, a curator at the museum.  Olive is not only a writer, she's a socially progressive do-gooder type, and she decides to take Philip under her wing.  She brings him home to her ramshackle farm in Kent, where he is exposed to artistic and socially conscious people who change his life, including the family of Benedict Fludd, a brilliant and eccentric potter.

Through Philip, the reader is introduced to a whole network of socially progressive people, artists, writers, craftspeople, and puppeteers who make up Olive's world, in England and on the Continent.  However, the novel is not so much about Philip -- we meet a whole generation of children who are growing up in a rather bohemian lifestyle.  The Children's Book basically a really great history lesson about English society as it transitions from the Victorian Era to the horrors of the Great War, with these families as a microcosm, if that makes any sense.

Where The Forgotten Garden is narrowly focused on one family's mystery, The Children's Book is about the upheaval of an entire generation from childhood to adulthood.  You could easily read The Forgotten Garden on a long flight, but The Children's Book took me well over a week of serious reading.  It is jam-packed with characters (seriously, I wish I'd made a chart when I started), fictional and real, plus history and commentary, which sadly, I think is to its detriment.

I loved learning about these families and their world, but Byatt packs so much into it, the narrative thread of the characters tends to get lost.  I could seriously have imagined this book split into two or even three volumes.  I loved learning about the Arts and Crafts movement, and the changing role of women, and the Suffragettes (to name but a few of the topics), but I felt like she was so into writing about the history that sometimes the characters were shoved aside.  Byatt often ends up telling us what the characters are doing and saying to get through the historical context, and less showing.  Some of the historical and political tangents were actually rather dry and sometimes preachy, and at the end, I wasn't even sure what happened to some of the most important characters.  I do wonder if she just ran out of steam or needed to finish on deadline.

I really enjoyed most of this book but I seriously think it could have used some editing.   Still, I'm sure it will make my list of Top Ten Reads of 2013.

20 comments:

  1. As much as I admire Ms. Byatt's brilliant intellect and exhaustive/exhausting research, I sometimes get tired of constantly being hit on the head with them. Bam, bam, bam!!! A steady diet of her books can render you unconscious.

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    1. Yes, the history was getting pretty heavy-handed. My eyes were glazing over certain parts, especially politics and all the stuff about the War, of which I am sadly uninformed. I'm feeling the overwhelming need to read more about the history of the Edwardians and the leadup to WWI.

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  2. I've never read Byatt, but this will be my introduction. I bought a copy in London two years ago (because I hated the US paperback cover), but haven't managed to read it yet. Really enjoyed your comparison to The Forgotten Garden... hope to fit it in this fall/winter.

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    1. I'm underwhelmed by the U.S. paperback cover as well. I was lucky enough to get a U.S. hardcover last year that someone donated for the Friends of the Library sale -- employees get first pick so it was only $1! I think the cover's gorgeous. I don't always keep books I've read but I'd keep this one for the beautiful cover alone.

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    2. Oh JoAnn! I think you will like Byatt! May I recommend her novellas, too, as a great intro to her smart style as a writer.

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  3. The details was so fascinating - especially trying to fit it with what I knew of the personalities of the era - but the length started to overwhelm me. I think you could be right about the need for a bit of brutal editing.

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    1. Towards the end, the focus of the book seemed to switch from the characters in a historical context to the history itself. The characters seemed like an afterthought.

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  4. I love this review. This is on my radar, but the sheer weight of it has me worried. I think the long evenings may provide an opportunity for it soon!

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    1. It's not a difficult read, and the characters were really interesting. It didn't seem like a long book once I got started -- I really wanted to know what was going to happen to everyone so I was happy that it was long and I could spend a lot of time with them. I didn't want it to end.

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  5. The writing was definitely beautiful, but like you I had a hard time with seeing SO MUCH packed into it. I was especially frustrated at the way the characters were split up throughout the book, even though I understand the narrative pressures that sent them all in different directions. I just liked it best when a lot of the main characters were in one place at once, interacting with each other.

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    1. I agree, I liked it best when the characters were together. I did like how they'd sometimes come together in different combinations. They were families and friends that had grown up together, so it seemed natural that they'd end up finding each other -- it didn't seem overly contrived though there were a few coincidences.

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  6. I find this book intimidating, but at the same time I'm looking forward to it. I have a weakness for big, panoramic books so hopefully it will work for me.

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    1. I was a little intimidated too, but the story really sucked me in. I too love big, panoramic books -- I just wish I had more time for them! After I've finished an enormous book I'm too tired to start another, so they often get pushed aside.

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  7. I have only read three books by Byatt, but cramming in of detail seems to be one of her traits. I like it. If you took it away, maybe it would be a better book, but it would somehow remove some of her authorial personality.

    I read this a couple of years ago. What I remember and enjoyed best was the description of the Worlds'Fair in Paris. She really brought that to life for me.

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    1. I've only read Possession, which I liked, though I admit to skipping most of the epic poetry. I thought the movie was okay though two of the leads were sort of miscast.

      I liked the part about the World's Fair also. It made me want to go back to Paris, which I've only visited for a week, and it was a while ago. Sigh.

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  8. I really do plan to get to this one within the next couple months. I'll just keep in mind that it will take some serious reading time!

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    1. There was a lot packed in but it really didn't feel like work -- I also had the audio from the library , so I was able to squeeze in bits in pieces in the car during my commute to work.

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  9. It's on my list and IN the HOUSE which means I have no excuse. I WILL read this. I just hope or wish I could promise SOON.

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    1. It's so hard with so many great books, isn't it ? I've set a goal to read 50% books from my own shelves and I'm doing really well this year, yet the owned-and-unread shelves aren't getting any emptier. And it's almost impossible for me to ignore library books since I work in a library!

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  10. I've read Byatt before and I've enjoyed the detail. I seem to like that kind of thing. The more history and the more detailed info, the better. I haven't heard about this book yet or the Kate Morton book so must check them out. Thanks for the wonderful comparisons and mini reviews.

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