Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review - The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Synopsis:  When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends.

But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end.

First Line:  "Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third."

Random Quote:  "They went into what was perhaps the most beautiful room, a dressing-room by Georges de Feure, all in moony colours, with furniture of dappled Hungarian ash, decorated with silvery copper inlay, hung with a shimmering silk tapestry of blue and grey formal flowers, shifting shape in the light, woven on a woof of silver threads.  The chairs were covered with blue-grey cloth embroidered with white silk roses."

Review:  A.S. Byatt always makes me think of Iris Murdoch and I love Iris Murdoch's writing.  Byatt's written two books of criticism on Murdoch (thus the connection) and in The Children's Book she has written a most Murdochian novel.  It is a sweeping philosophical family saga concerned with the shift from the Victorian to Edwardian era in the run up to World War I.  The time period is rich in interesting detail - Fabianism, the Arts and Crafts movement, pastoralism, anarchy, women's suffrage, art nouveau, Jung, and Freud, and German fairy tales - and Byatt tells us all about it in equally rich and beautifully described detail.
"Artichoke" wallpaper,designed by Jo... Artichoke wallpaper designed by John Henry Dearle for the William Morris Co. - Image via Wikipedia

I suspect that this book probably drove many of its readers a little mad because so much of its plot is buried in its story, but I loved that about it.  Byatt uses the period as a large stage set that her characters move through, much like the marionette show in the opening chapters of the novel.  The time period is the story, the people and the relationships between them are in their own way as decorative as the pure white pottery glaze developed by Palissy (which is in its own sense a fairy story).  In a way, these are all the bits and pieces that add up to a particular kind of fairy tale where the setting is as much a character as the goblins and kobolds.

The Edwardian era has always seemed like the golden, perfect summer and fall before the long gray winter of World War I and this novel really captures that.  There were large chunks of the last third of the novel that made me cry and by the end I'll admit that I was sobbing.  Byatt is as ruthless with her setting and her characters as the trenches were to their inhabitants and that has a powerful resonance.

This novel is long and demanding.  It requires your full and undivided attention and your commitment, but the returns are in staggering beauty.

Reading Challenges:  The Complete Booker 2010 Challenge, Historical Reading Challenge 2010, 2010 100+ Reading Challenge, 2010 A to Z Reading Challenge, 2010 Chunkster Challenge, 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge, Typically British Reading Challenge 2010
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  1. I want to read this one, but sounds like the timing MUST be perfect to get the most out of this book. Probably better for the Kindle instead of a borrow from the library. Thanks for the great review - loved it!

  2. I need to get on with reading this one, but I keep getting distracted by thinner books. I shall look out for Iris Murdoch books too now.

  3. I enjoyed your review! I've been a bit unsure about reading this book, but if it's like Iris Murdoch I'd probably like it. Plus I like the time period and the setting ... so maybe I'll try it someday. Thanks!


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