Wednesday, October 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Children's Book, by A.S.Byatt

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. Published 2009 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, The Children's Book, acclaimed and past-Booker-Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt's latest novel, is a wonderful, luminous literary work by one of the top writers of English literature today. Set in rural England of the late nineteenth century, it's an ensemble piece. At its center is the wealthy Wellwood family, chiefly sisters-in-law Olive and Katharina, married to brothers Humphrey and Basil respectively, and whose children and friends revolve around their magnetic center.

Olive is a matriarch and an accomplished writer; her sister Violet, cares for her children and carries her secrets; Olive's children Peter, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda and Florian, have parts large and small in the narrative; and Katharina's son Charles finds himself drawn to Marxist ideologies and the concerns of the working class despite his privileged upbringing. Among the various characters orbiting the Wellwoods are the Fludds, a family both deeply artistic and deeply troubled. And into this galaxy comes Phillip Warren, a young man who is both very poor and very talented- so talented an artist that this community takes him under its wing and nurtures him and his sister Elsie.

There isn't one overarching plot, except the stories of these characters' lives; rather, the book is made up of a series of smaller, interlocking stories that dovetail at different points in the novel- a garden party near the start of the book, a trip to Paris for a design fair, a summer arts camp, a quiet dinner at the end. Characters come together and drift apart throughout like a reel dance. Byatt uses the book to explore themes and motifs I've seen throughout her work- the beauty and mythology of rural England, fairy tales, the lives of writers and artists, sex and gender and power, social class, and the special, secret and often dangerous bonds between sisters. She also touches on social trends particular to the novel's late-nineteenth century setting- Fabianism, Marxism, socialism. She doesn't just talk about them either- she shows how they impact the lives of her characters, working up to the devastation and senseless slaughter of World War I.

All of it she writes with her characteristic skill and magic. Her fairy tales are richly imagined, detailed miniatures; she describes her characters' artwork with a painter's eye. I particularly admire how meticulously she describes color, which I've seen elsewhere in her work and never fail to appreciate. I was both fascinated and repelled by her portrayal of the Fludd household, with its combination of artistic ambition and languid, hothouse lethargy. You just know something bad is going on in there.

I loved The Children's Book- I loved how Byatt moves in an around this huge cast of characters, especially when it rounded the final corner and I finally knew what the book was about and whose love story it was really telling. It ends with a cozy dinner scene between characters I wouldn't have predicted, filled with a sense of love, as well as loss, that I never saw coming. It's a literary masterwork which will not suit the tastes of every reader but for me, proved to be a very satisfying and rewarding read.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.