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A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book Legolas Send a noteboard - 08/12/2010 08:58:34 PM
It is, as I don't need to tell most of you, a little daunting to write a review of a book previously reviewed on this board by Larry and Camilla. Particularly since I have yet to read a Byatt book that made me feel like I understood all of it, and I see both of those reviews discussed - different - aspects of this book that I hadn't even really noticed or given much thought to. Still, I will endeavour to write my own review and try to focus on things not yet mentioned in too much detail in the other reviews. Fortunately, Byatt being the genius she is (yes, I am a fanboy, this is not news), this book has enough depth and different aspects to make that possible.

For those who haven't read either of those other reviews and have no idea what this book is about, I'll summarize, as much as a book like this can be summarized. It tells the stories of a number of (mostly) British families in the period from 1894 to the end of the First World War, mostly the stories of the children (no surprise there, considering the title). And through and inbetween those, the story of that period in European history up to the Great War, known by a number of names - Fin de Siècle (end of the century) and Belle Epoque (beautiful era) being perhaps the most fitting. That period will forever be remembered as the calm before the storm, remembered as much brighter than it really was due to the contrast with the monstrosities of the war that followed. The war takes up only a small part of the book - forty pages out of more than six hundred, in my copy - but, just like the real one did, has a powerful, distorting impact on the memory of everything that came before.

Byatt's books are almost invariably very much focused on Britain, displaying her encyclopedic knowledge of everything British of the past century and a half. This one is not really different in that regard, but it is easily the most international - albeit still European - book of hers I've read, with a particularly deft treatment of the complicated relationship between Britain and Germany prior to the war. An impressive amount of notable Britons of the era make their appearance - some just in the historical asides, others in cameos in the main story - but many non-Britons also appear, like August Rodin, Carl Gustav Jung, Kaiser Wilhelm and many others. Those historical asides might, I suppose, be irritating to some, but they are often extremely interesting and unexpected, and they form an essential part of Byatt's attempt to catch the era on paper.

There are other things that appear in just about every Byatt novel - she is perhaps less varied in her approach than other novelists, but gets away with it because she's so very, very good in said approach. Extensive discussion of art and artistic characters is one of those constants, in the case of this book focused mostly on pottery and other "applied" arts (the book really should have included colour images of the real works referred to...). Another is the presence of stories-within-the-story and/or poems written by characters in the book. In books like Possession and Babel Tower, this meta-literature consitutes, in my opinion at least, a large part of the brilliance of those books. Here, not so much. Not that they are bad - Byatt remains excellent at writing slightly peculiar fairy tales and poetry that somehow really fits its fictional author. But I didn't find them all that spectacular, either, and they kind of broke the flow of the story for me, instead of enhancing it.

The impressive painting of an era is definitely one of the strengths of this book - the art, the politics, but most importantly the social changes, the tensions between haves and have-nots, and between men and women. But this alone would not have made for a great novel - a great history book, maybe, but not a novel. And fortunately, the characters and the plot can live up to these high standards. I must admit the large size of the cast - without any real protagonist - had me somewhat confused at times as to who was who again, particularly since the family ties get even more complicated later on in the book. This does not mean that the characters are interchangeable or badly fleshed out, though - merely that there are a lot to keep track of. The history described becomes much stronger through the stories of the men and women living it - characters who are for the system, or against it, some children rebelling openly, others more subtly, or belatedly, or not at all, suffragettes, socialists, anarchists - and yet all credible characters in their own right, not merely playing some token role.

Bottom line, this is a wonderful book. Among Byatt's best, and coming from me that's high praise; the meta parts of it may not be particularly impressive, but the actual story is arguably the best she's ever written, as is the history-telling. A number of the characters are genuinely memorable - and they're not necessarily the ones who got the most screentime. The pacing is cleverly thought-out - languid at times, yes, but that only makes the impact greater when it suddenly speeds up and shocking events happen in just a few lines.

I won't lie, it helps - a lot - to know and be interested in Britain or at least Western Europe, to fully appreciate this book (as I said before, I don't know if I'll ever really feel I've fully appreciated any Byatt book, what with not being British and lacking an extensive knowledge of British art and literature). But I think the story and the writing is strong enough to appeal to readers who don't meet that criterium, though it's true it's still not for everyone.
This message last edited by Legolas on 08/12/2010 at 08:59:47 PM
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A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book - 08/12/2010 08:58:34 PM 5190 Views
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