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.

23 comments:

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

This one's on my shelf. Glad to read the raving review! Thanks.

Charley said...

This book is on my list. I like the cover.

Melissa said...

"Reel dance" - excellent analogy!

I just finished The Children's Book at 1am this morning and am trying to put together a slighty more intelligent string of thought beyond "it was awesome".

Am completely jealous that you got a review copy :p

Zibilee said...

Great review! This is another book I am excited about reading and after reading your review I am looking forward to it even more. It almost sounds a bit like Little, Big. The atmosphere and storytelling style seem similar to me. I guess I will have to read it to find out just how similar the two are.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like there's a lot going on in this book. The social trends sound really interesting.

Lenore said...

I really want to read this! If I can't get it at FBF, it's the next one I will buy.

Diane said...

Thanks Marie for the great review. I was wondering about this as someone told me they did not care for it, and the reviews seem mixed.

Marie said...

Diane, I've seen a lot of mixed reviews for it as well. It's not for everybody. But for the right reader, it's incredible!

Laura said...

AS Byatt is like fine wine. You enjoy it slowly. I just adore her style of writing and she never bores me. She may fry my brain from time-to-time (Babel Tower, anyone?), but I know I can be transported into a world that will enthrall me and enrapture me.

Marie said...

Laura- absolutely right :-)

JoAnn said...

I'm so far behind here...still MUST read Possession before I can get to this one!

Blodeuedd said...

I have seen this one at the library...perhaps I should go and pick it up :)

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

though I prefer reading Novels by African writers, Byatt is on my list of 100 books to be read in five years. Thanks for this.

Paperback Reader said...

You are right to mention that this book isn't a good fit for every reader; I LOATHED it. I found it a chore to read from beginning to end and waded through it sluggishly; I am still livid with myself for actually taking the time (eight long days) to finish the thing. I find the Victorian and Edwardian periods of history fascinating and am interested in the social, liberal movements, the art and especially the history but I would have preferred a nonfiction study of them than a (for the most part) nonfiction study that dressed itself up as fiction. I didn't find the large cast of characters at all engaging or sympathetic and I thought that a lot more could have been done with them.

I am happy for the Byatt fans who love this book but it most definitely wasn't for me; it was the most turgid reading experience I have so far had this year.

Paperback Reader said...

*I meant especially the literature, instead of repeating history again. It professed to be about children's literature of the time but halfheartedly mentioned Peter Pan and Kenneth Greene. It could have been a fascinating study of the tragic lives of the children who are muses for literature of the day.

Marie said...

Paperback, I felt like the book wasn't really about the writing as it was about the people. Have you read HEIR TO THE GLIMMERING WORLD, by Cynthia Ozick? It's (partly) about a Christopher-Robin type figure who grew up as the model for a famous children's book. It's set in the Depression-era US. you might enjoy it.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Marie! I'll add it to the wishlist (her story "The Shawl" is on it too).

Amy said...

Cannot WAIT to read this one!!!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I've seen lots of reviews of this book, but I think this one has the best summary I've read so far. Thanks for that -- I've been trying to decide if I want to read it, but couldn't quite figure out what it was about :)

Dar said...

Nice review. I've seen a lot of reviews of this one and it's already on the wishlist. That's going to be one expensive shopping trip when I finally press the checkout button. lol.

Ali said...

I'll definitely keep my eye out for this one. Looks fascinating!

stacybuckeye said...

I've never read Byatt, but she's been on my must read list for awhile.

S. Krishna said...

I haven't read Byatt, but I really want to read this and Possession. Thanks for the review.