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Thursday, July 8, 2010

An oppressive heat, a bit of rain and a lot of A. S. Byatt

It is my last couple of days in France until September and it is seriously steamy here. Boiling hot days and nights have given way to the odd few hours of torrential rain and for what seems like moments we have been cooled slightly before the sun re asserts itself. It is the kind of weather that makes you slow. On the whole, the last week has been a good time to read A. S. Byatt’s doorstop The Children’s Book. Its long, its complicated, its detailed, it should possibly have been short listed for the bad sex award as well as the booker, but at the end of the long hot day, I think I liked it.

The Children’s Book is a sort of fictional collective biography which starts in the late Victorian age and ends in the trenches of the Somme over 20 years later. It weaves together the lives of three interlinked families together with a host of other associates and the outcome is a cast of what feels like thousands. One of Byatt’s greatest achievements in this book is that she keeps each of these characters in focus and well defined whilst also creating the feel of a community. And what a community they are; we have artists, craftsmen; writers; thinkers; Fabians; revolutionaries; poets; female doctors; suffragettes; museum keepers; rational dressers; nudists; feminists. They are linked by ties of blood, sex, childhood and the powerful ideas of the Victorian and Edwardian avant garde.

If there is a centre to this intricate and disparate tale then that centre is Olive Wellwood. Olive is a writer of children’s stories, an expert on fairy tales, the chatelaine of a ramshackle rural family home, a philanderer’s wife and a working class refugee in an upper middle class world. More than anything, she is an emotional but disengaged mother to 7 children. For each of those children she writes a story that is constantly embellished and enriched with re-writings and new elements. The length and complexity of each story reflects the grossly variable love that she feels for each of her children and as the reader will see, the dark corners of her family history and her marriage.

One of Byatt’s chief concerns is the tension between domesticity and art and this is explored in several characters. Olive is a woman who chooses art. Her sister keeps house for her and cares for the children day to day and the two women are as co-dependent as they are resentful of one another. Her children underpin and inspire her best work, but she fails to engage with any of them on a non-fictional level. Byatt’s comment here on the home lives of artists would feel hackneyed if it were not so well documented. Olive is partly based on E. Nesbitt and of course there are many other examples of the same phenomenon.

Fans of Possession will know how much Byatt loves to write of worlds within worlds and The Children’s Book is no exception. The novel is littered with Olive’s stories, plays, puppet shows, museums, craft fairs and general symposiums in which our characters perform. More than this, there is an inside-outness about childhood and adulthood. So many of the adults in the story are childish – they decline to take on adult responsibilities; they do not demand adult behaviour from their children, even when they are adult. At the same time, the children respond to the chaos of the family life with a sort of desperate maturity.

This is a novel with a powerful sense of history and a feeling for the history of ideas. Byatt captures how ideas can fire people and lead them to new vistas. She seems to hold in easy reach both the idealism of early free thinkers and the absurdity of people who talked always of sexual freedom but did not think to educate their daughters.

So why do I only think I like it? Well, Byatt’s fine tale of artists within families almost dies under a welter of detail and digression. Byatt is a self consciously intellectual writer and as well as weaving complex plots she likes to digress into cultural soliloquies. In Possession, I loved this and was happy to sit back and be taught, but I felt that The Children’s Book went a lecture too far. With endless digressions on social movements and moments of history, there was a lot of showing off in this particular education. There was an over reliance on the already well documented life stories of various artists and writers. Olive is based on E. Nesbitt while her near neighbour, the demented and depressive potter Benedict Fludd is manifestly based on Eric Gill. The spindly-fingered sexual predator Herbert Methley is an almost straight incarnation of D. H. Lawrence. Fictionalisation can be a brilliant way of telling life stories, but not this time. For me the presence of these real lives made the book feel too predictable; reading certain passages was like reading yesterday’s newspapers.

The Children’s Book completely divides opinion, so a potential reader may enjoy consulting a few more. There are excellent reviews at Dovegrey Reader; Farm Lane Books; Random Jottings; ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog; Things mean a lot; The Indextrious Reader; Alone with each other; Maud Newton; Medieval Bookworm; Passionate Booklover; and finally the splendid Booksnob.

I have included a picture of the beautiful front cover as well a pictures of A. S. Byatt and her muses Edith Nesbit, Eric Gill and D. H. Lawrence.

29 comments:

  1. I see you had largely the same experience as me. So much promise, but sadly too much detail! If this had been shaved down by a couple of hundred pages, it really would have been a superb novel, but alas, it wasn't, and so became a disappointment. I don't regret reading it though, so it can't have been all that bad. Thanks for linking to my review!

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  2. Hannah, what a wonderful and thorough review. I loved the art you included too. I have this one on my shelves waiting to be read.

    It's hot hot hot here as well.

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  3. I really enjoyed most of this book but got very irritated by Olive's stories, which I started to skip after a while, and also the cod 2nd world war poetry. This is the reason I don't go overboard with Byatt -- her showing off how "well" she can do pastiche. But I did love most of the detail here.
    Interesting by the way that you have been having rain -- is it Paris where you are? I am on the Normandy/Brittany border and it is boiling hot and very very dry.

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  4. This was the first Byatt book that I read and I enjoyed it enough to purchase Possession shortly thereafter (I have not yet had the opportunity to read this one, however). I found the book difficult to review, but thought you did a marvelous job of succinctly showcasing its strengths as well as weaknesses.

    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today. I look forward to reading your review of Luncheon of the Boating Party after you have had the chance to finish it.

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  5. I loved Possession but having read your post and then a few of the ones you linked to, (thank you for doing that as it was good to confirm my thoughts) I'm not sure I will read it, or it at least won't be high up in my TBR thoughts.

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  6. An excellent review! Byatt has intimidated me for quite some time. I want to read The Children's Book, yet always manage to pick up something else when it's time for a new book. Perhaps I should start with Possession?

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  7. I am currently reading her collection of short stories, 'Sugar', which I am enjoying a lot. I did like 'Possession', but 'The Children's Book' sounds hard going. Thanks for such a terrific review of it - that book cover is really gorgeous isn't it.

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  8. I have not read Byatt and am glad for the highlights so that I can note it for the future. Thanks for a wonderful review.

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  9. What a lovely evenhanded review--much appreciated for someone who wants to read the book but doesn't wanted to be dissuaded ahead of time (though my reaction might well be exactly the same!). It does sound a formidable read.

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  10. I'm ashamed to say I've never read Byatt, and this sounds intriguing to me, but maybe I'll start with Possession. Might be a better way to ease into her work.

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  11. I had heard a lot about this book when it first came out, and finally bought a copy for my Kindle about a month ago. I am not really to pleased to hear that Byatt is intellectually fussy in this book though, and that alone might color how I feel about it. I think this book sounds a little to me like Little, Big, though I can imagine that The Children's Book is a lot more structured and organized.

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  12. I checked this book out from the library a few months ago and never got around to reading it. I'll have to revisit it though. I enjoyed Possession and The Virgin in the Garden so I'll have to read this as well.

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  13. Good review and I enjoyed the comments, but am not convinced by Byatt.

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  14. Very good review...I am yet to read the book and I have been looking forward to it a lot but I have been reading a lot of mixed reviews about it....but I am going to take your word for it and read it at least once :) thanks for the lovely review :)

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  15. I think Possession is the longest "non-read" book sitting on my book shelf -- bought it in hard back for a book club I belonged to years ago -- I think I need to conquer that before A Children's Book.

    Another AMAZING review.

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  16. Good evening all and thank you so much for visiting and commenting -

    Rachel - yes, I think that you and I are in roughly the same place. I am glad that I read it and think it has a lot to recommend it - but some purity was lost under all that detail in my opinion.

    Diane - thank you for your kind words, I would be so interested to hear what you think.

    Harriet - I wasn't crazy about Olive's stories I must admit but I loved the pastiche in Possession... on the subject of the weather, i wrote the post on Monday but have not had time to post until now - now it is drier but just as hot!

    Molly - I really hope that you enjoy Possession, I read it when I was at university to unwind after exams and I have never forgotten it.

    Joan - as I said above, I am a huge Possession fan, and this has many of the same hallmarks although in my opinion, not as convincing or as compelling.

    JoAnn - thank you for your kind words. Personally, I would recommend starting with Possession. With many authors I would recommend saving the best until last but the danger with Byatt is that if you did that you might give up!

    Joanne - yes isn't it lovely! Thanks for your kind words.

    Mystica - you are very welcome.

    Danielle - that's a good word for it - formidable. Thanks for your comment.

    Heather - I think you're right there - see my response to JoAnn above. Thanks for commenting.

    Zibilee - I haven't read Little, Big but would be interested to hear about it!

    Amanda - I hope that you enjoy it and would be really interested to read what you make of it.

    Hermes - thanks for visiting and leaving a comment - I find that her oice is more convincing in Possession than in this book.

    Vaishnavi - Thank you so much as always for kind words - enjoy and do let me (and the blogosphere!) know what you make of it.

    Thank you all
    Hannah

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  17. Gerbera Daisy Mom - Thank you *so* much and you and I must have been typing at the same time. I would def. recommend starting with Possession and really hope that you enjoy.

    Hannah

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  18. what a thoughtful and fascinating review -- thank you. I know what you mean about the 'learning through books' thing - it's a tightrope for an author to tread, to be sure... predictable is a risk, as is patronising and just plain irrelevant. I shall have to see for myself I think, it sounds too much like I *might* like it for me to want to miss out! I love worlds within worlds so am keen to give it a go. I still have to read the Virgin in the Garden and the rest of the trilogy though, unfortunately they've been on my TBR list for so long that she's had time to write another book in the interim - !

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  19. The reviews you link to pretty much sum up my problem with Byatt. Brilliant yes, but she lacks the emotional tug that would make her great. Too smart by half, I say.

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  20. I loved THE CHILDREN'S BOOK but for me it was more a book to admire than a book to feel passionately about. Great review though- very thorough!

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  21. thank you for the link to my review and glad to see that I am not alone in my feelings about A S Byatt. I did enjoy Possession though I felt exhausted by the end of and the Children's Book finished me off completely.

    I might try some of her short stories though and see how I get on with them, but think she is probably an author I might leave now that I have tried her

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  22. What a gorgeous review. I've often seen this book and been enticed by the delicious cover. I think I will give it a go as I can handle a challenging book now and again.

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  23. Morning all - thanks for visiting and commenting, I do love to hear what you all think.

    Jane - you are right it is a very challenging kind of novel for an author to attempt and as I say, I am glad that I read it - I think it is definately worth trying.

    Patti - yes there are not as many emotional high points as I would like and expect from a novel.

    Marie - thank you so much Marie

    Elaine - you are welcome!

    Donna - I hope that you enjoy.

    OK all - enjoy your Fridays.

    Hannah

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  24. Fantstic review, one of those that makes me feel like I do want to read such a lauded book, not just that I should. I especially liked your observation that the 'complexity of each story reflects the grossly variable love that she feels for each of her children' which makes me want to see which ones she loves the most.

    Really interesting to hear that the adults are often very recognisable as well known writers and artists. Byatt indirectly dissed her rival Mantle during the Booker contest by saying she didn't believe in writing books about real historical people. I guess she gets around that by giving them made up names, but if Herbert Methley is almost exactly like D H Lawrence it seems like a bit of a cheek to talk about the ethics of writing novels with real people at their heart.

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  25. Thank you for your review. I was wondering how you were getting on with The Children's Book.
    I asked for it for a Christmas present and got it given. Possession was one of my all time favourite books, so I was disappointed by The Children's Book. I got irritated by what, I thought, was too much self-conscious detail and, for me, less would have been more. However, I can't give up on Byatt and will probably re-read at some point in the hope of getting more out of parts of it. I love the cover!
    I hope you have a good journey and look forward to catching up with you later.

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  26. The cover, title, and subject make it seem as if this would be a light, whimsical book yet your review shows it to be otherwise. I will probably still let myself be seduced by that art nouveau-ish cover and try it at some point. Thank you for your insight.

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  27. I've been holding off on reading this until I have a very long, unbroken stretch of time in which to tackle it. It seems like one of those books you wouldn't be able to pick up and put down very easily - I imagine you need to read largeish chunks of it at once for it to work. I don't know if I'll love it, but I know I WANT to. :p

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  28. Morning all, hope that everyone enjoyed their weekends.

    Jodie - that is interesting, I hadn't picked up the Wolf Hall element - thanks for visiting and commenting!

    Linda - I feel the same way about Possession and everyone loves that cover don't they?!

    Stephanie - you are very welcome.

    Jenny - erm, yes, that is what I thought at forst as well, but having read it I would say that it is sufficiently vivid that it can be managed happily in small chunks. I hope that you enjoy it whichever way you tackle it.

    Thanks so much for all of your comments,

    Hannah

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  29. I read Possession many years ago and rather liked it. I am very curious about this one precisely because it's had some mixed reviews. But the period and premise is hard to resist for me.

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