Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Book Review - The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Promotions for this book often ran along the lines, “If you liked Possession, you’ll love The Children’s Book.” This isn’t/wasn’t necessarily true. A.S. Byatt’s Booker winning Possession and her Booker shortlisted The Children’s Book are very different, and liking, even loving the former doesn’t guarantee a reader will like the latter at all. Possession was a romance, with a double storyline and characters based on Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti. The second half of the book picks up speed until it’s a race against time almost on par with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. The Children’s Book is a complex portrait of an era, brimming with characters, stories, and detail, and the pace of the novel, even at its most rapid, can be said to be “meandering.” I know people who loved both books (I am one), and I know people who loved Possession and didn’t care for The Children’s Book at all, as well as those who didn’t like either book. The only real similarity between the two books is the extremely high quality of Byatt’s writing.
The Children’s Book stretches from 1895 to 1919, encompassing England’s late Victorian and Edwardian eras, and is set primarily in the beautiful downs and marshes of County Kent, in southern England, as well as the southeastern coast at Dungeness, with excursions to Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps, and the trenches of the Somme. At the center – more or less – of this richly textured and meticulously researched novel, are three families – the Wellwoods, the Cains, and the Fludds, supported by pre-Raphaelites, Russian anarchists, socialists, antivivisectionists, Theosophists, Symbolists, members of the Fabian Society, the Arts and Crafts Movement, proponents of German Expressionism, suffragettes, as well as cameos from historical persons including Rupert Brooke, Emma Goldman, J.M. Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and a very broken-down Oscar Wilde.
Humphrey and Olive Wellwood, with Olive’s sister, Violet, who functions as a nanny/head housekeeper, live with their brood of children (the book will follow Tom and Dorothy, the eldest most closely) in a charming country house with the improbable name of “Todefright.” Olive is a “successful authoress of magical tales” for children, while Humphrey is a banker by default, rather than by inclination. The book opens in the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert) as Olive is seeking inspiration from the museum’s “Special Keeper of Precious Metals,” Major Prosper Cain. Off on an adventure of their own are Olive’s eldest son, Tom, and Cain’s son, Julian (daughter Florence isn’t in the museum, but she plays a large part in the book), who are soon to discover Philip Warren, an artistic lower-class runaway from the Potteries, who’s been surreptitiously living in the museum’s labyrinth of storerooms. It’s Philip who connects the Wellwoods to the Cains and the Fludds, when he’s rescued by Olive and apprenticed to Benedict Fludd (based on the British sculptor, Eric Gill), a genius potter given to “werewolf-changes” and “religious fits.” Fludd lives with his wife, the dreamy Serephita, his son, Geraint, and his pretty daughters, Imogen and Pomona, who are “pallid silk moths” and live “as though they have sleeping sickness, or are under a spell.” The Fludds’ ghastly home, Purchase House, stands in stark contrast to the charm and whimsy that is Todefright. But as the reader soon learns, all is not as it would seem at first glance.
In the Wellwood and Fludd families, in particular, secrets abound. We soon learn that Olive’s and Violet’s background in a dingy mining community in south Yorkshire, with its dire poverty and traumatic loss, is more akin to Philip Warren’s than it is to any member of the Wellwood family, and that Olive, despite her seven children, is not the “modern Mother Goose” she portrays herself to be, nor is she a fairy godmother come to life. Everyone is this book suffers from a hidden past, secret relationships, and repressed pain. The Children’s Book is definitely not the idyllic tale of life in the countryside that some readers might think it to be. This book is chock full of marital infidelities, dysfunctional relationships, unwanted pregnancies, illegitimate children, mental illness and more. This is, in part, a book about how much a person is willing to sacrifice for his or her art, and how much he or she is willing to sacrifice those closest to him or her as well. For me, The Children’s Book is Byatt’s darkest work by far, as the creative process, at least for most of the characters in this novel, brings out the very worst in the artist’s nature rather than the best. In this book, it’s the need to create that drives many of the characters – principally, Olive Wellwood and Benedict Fludd – and that need overrides anything else in the characters’ lives. I enjoyed the darkness in this book, but I do think many readers will be put off by it, or reject its use in such large measure.
At the center of this book are Olive Wellwood’s dark and rather sinister fairy tales – the infant prince whose shadow is stolen while he’s still in his crib; the girl who imprisons a group of miniature human beings in her dolls’ house only to be imprisoned herself by another, larger child – written more in the German tradition than in the English. Byatt has threaded extracts of Olive’s work throughout the book, thus inviting, I think, those unfair comparisons with Possession, and introducing the reader to her own opinion of the writers of children’s literature of the period. One can find, in the pages of this book, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, and others. And there’s Olive, of course, who seems to be a composite of several historical writers of the time.
For each of “her” children, Olive has created a special book, a book that not only reveals her inner feelings about that child, but her biological relationship as well. “The stories in the books were, in their nature, endless. They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit on to the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning.” The first book, and by far, the longest, belongs to Tom, Olive’s eldest, Peter Pan-like son, the boy who, ironically, despises the figure of Peter Pan and “make believe.” It’s Tom Olive loves the most, and oddly, it’s Tom Olive hurts the most when she fails to separate her son from his fictional alter ego, and when she makes the details of “his” story available to the public at large by way of a play – “Tom Underground” – that’s celebrated for its echoes of Wagner and Kleist. It was, after all, understood that each child’s story would remain private, for “everyone understood that the magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret.” A secret shared only by Olive and the child for whom the book had been written.
With Olive’s betrayal of Tom, the children of the novel grow to adulthood knowing full well that the darkest side of life lies just around each corner, waiting to strike. The girls learn that their husbands will betray them, the boys that wives will sometimes do the same. And both girls and boys learn that one’s birth mother or father is often not the same thing as one’s “true” parent, and that even “true” parents are capable of the most hurtful of betrayals.
Many readers find the sheer number of characters inhabiting this book to be daunting. And, at times, they can be. For example, Byatt introduces more than thirty characters in the first one hundred pages. For me, however, all the characters, as well as their stories, came to life beautifully, and quite memorably. I didn’t have any trouble keeping them straight. I’m not sure if I really liked anyone in this book, but I do know everyone in the book interested me greatly, perhaps all the more because I didn’t really care for them. Many of the characters in the book are trying to figure out just who they are and what their place in life should be. Though Tom takes center stage as the book’s “lost soul,” he’s certainly not the only one, by far. The changes and advancements taking place during the Edwardian age seemed to make it all the more difficult for a child to grow up secure in his own self, knowing who he or she really is. Like them or not, we care about these people, and we genuinely want the best for them.
Byatt’s prose in The Children’s Book, like her prose in every book she writes, is beautiful. The narrative flows in and out of the minds of the various characters so smoothly and effortlessly that the technique is barely visible unless one actually looks for it. And this book is rich in sensory detail, something that really brings the story to life. Byatt is masterful when describing Olive’s early pregnancy nausea as she bites into her morning toast and honey “nourishing herself and the blind life she had not exactly invited to settle in her,” or the sudden desire of young Elsie Warren, who “had reached an age where every surface of her skin was taut with the need to be touched and used.” On one hand, the book might be said to be “writerly,” but on the other, it’s far too human and engaging and genuinely moving to be thought of as “writerly.”
And of course, the book can’t help but veer into politics now and then. For much of the novel, World War I is looming just over the horizon. I think Byatt is at her best when describing the gathering forces of both England and Germany and the crises of identity the war engenders in several of the book’s characters. The coda at the book’s end, centering on the fate of the “bright boys” who fought for England during the Great War is a masterpiece of restraint. It’s beautiful and harrowing at the same time. I don’t know how any reader could fail to be moved. I think many readers are going to feel that The Children’s Book ends on a note of bittersweet hope. Those who managed to survive the war are, in the book’s final pages, reconnecting with loved ones and strengthening old bonds. But one should never forget that this is a very dark book, and the reader should remember that in twenty-one short years, the children of these “bright boys,” most, at the novel's end, still in their nursery, with many not yet born, will be dispatched to the trenches of World War Two.
Some people felt this book needed a shorter, more streamlined story. I’m not one. I think a shorter, more streamlined story would have been a different story, and not the story Byatt wanted to tell, and that would have been such a shame. I loved The Children’s Book exactly as it is. For me, it was an exquisite reading experience, one that stands along side Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. The Children’s Book is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and appreciated without wanting to change a single thing. This book affected me deeply; I’ll never forget it.
Recommended: Only to those readers who prefer literary fiction and writing of the first order. The book is brimming with detail, and at times, it moves at a leisurely pace. If you’re a reader who needs a plot that moves along at breakneck speed, wonderful as it is, this wouldn’t be the book for you.