Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Children's Book


I had preconceptions when I went into the challenge of reading The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. When I say challenge I am not solely referring to the challenge of reading the Man Booker 2009 longlist/shortlist but that The Children's Book was a challenge in itself. I was daunted, not by its length as 615 page books don't normally faze me but by the tome-like density of The Children's Book. It was a slog to read; at times I felt as if I was wading through waist-high snow and not progressing anywhere very quickly. My boyfriend said that he has never -in six and a half years of us being together- seen me take so long to read a book; it took me nine days to eventually finish it. The sheer epic scope of this novel and its minute attention to period detail made it, for me, a very slow read and feat of endurance. The overwhelming amount of detail provided was impressive but I found most of it superfluous and thought that Byatt required a lot more editing.

The Children's Book is certainly accomplished but I often felt that I was reading a historical account of the Victorian and Edwardian periods and not a piece of literary fiction; I was not engaged at all in the characters or the plot that was hidden amongst the detail. I did enjoy the last forty pages -the final section, "The Age of Lead", that was set during World War I- but it was not long enough nor good enough to make up for the other 575 pages of boredom. If I had not had to read this book for my Booker challenge, I honestly don't think I would have finished it as it was a chore. For the most part I did not find it enjoyable and was actually counting down the pages until it was over; at the last 150 pages stage I kept nodding off at every second paragraph, which I think is telling of something far greater than tiredness.

The premise appealed to me and literary fiction that was both about fairy tales in part and also about one of my favourite periods in history should have engrossed me but it didn't. I find Byatt dry and like Rachel of Book Snob I suspect that she was attempting to write a thesis about Victoriana and not a novel. I haven't provided a synopsis of the novel because it can easily be found on an online bookselling website or in other reviews; what I have provided is my gut reaction to the book and apologies to the Byatt fans or to those who thoroughly enjoyed the book.

As I said at the beginning, I went in with preconceptions. Reading the first glowing review of The Children's Book only served in putting me off when large, detailed quotes were used to highlight the novel's style; I know that books that contain such historical detail at the expense of storyline are not for me. Byatt has a large cast of characters that mainly belong to four families: the Wellwoods, with matriarch children's writer Olive Wellwood at their helm; their cousins; the Cains, the father Prosper Cain the alchemist of the South Kensington Museum - later to become the Victoria and Albert; and the Fludds, headed by the famous potter, Benedict, who is a volatile genius; the remainder of the cast are integrated into one or all of these families or are merely supplementary but at times I felt the need of a family tree to keep them all straight in my head especially when one of the characters begins to be referred to by another name...

Proportionately I have given you over 600 words of what I didn't like but now for what I did. I appreciated the ambition of the novel, even if it did not engage me. I was interested in the period but it was altogether too much. I enjoyed the intertextuality of the novel and the use of popular literature of the time to parallel sections of the plot; where I didn't enjoy the sections of Olive Wellwood's tales, I did enjoy Byatt's references to them and comparisons with Peter Pan. Tom Wellwood didn't want to be a grown-up and his shadow was "snipped off his feet in his cradle, by a monstrous rat." I also liked the war poetry that was written in the final section. The Bluebeard allusions were interesting as was the puppet theatre and I welcomed the cameos by Oscar Wilde and Marie Stopes and the walk-on appearances by J. M. Barrie and H. G. Wells.

Lastly, some of the writing that I liked:

Dorothy was born in the late autumn of 1884. Phyllis was born in the spring of 1886. In 1888 a girl was stillborn. In 1887 Olive wrote some stories for children, and sold them to various magazines. These were conventional tales of children suffering hardship - an orphan rescued by a nabob, miners' children fending off starvation, a sickly child restored by a talking parrot.
Hedda was born in 1890 and Florian in 1892.
In 1889 Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book appeared. Tales for children suddenly included real magic, myths, invented worlds and creatures. Olive's early tales had been grimly sweet and unassuming. The coming - or return - of the fairytale opened some trapdoor in her imagination. Her writing became compulsive, fluent and daring.

The story books were kept in a glass-faced cabinet in Olive's study. Each child had a book, and each child had his or her own story. It had began, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Each story was written in its own book, hand-decorated with stuck-on scraps and coloured patterns.

Olive considered him. Reasons for his madness flickered across her mind and were rejected. The writer in her could could have imagined a scene in which the secret had 'slipped out'. The woman in her felt both threatened and enraged. The woman needed to keep calm, or the writer would be unable to work tomorrow. The woman was afraid of age and loss.

Backwards and forwards both. The Edwardians knew they came after something. The sempiternal Queen was gone, in all her manifestations, from the squat and tiny widow swathed in black crape and jet beads, to the gold-encrusted, bedizened, crowned idol who was brought out at durbars and jubilees. That pursed little mouth was silent for ever. Her long-dead mate, who had most seriously cared for the lives of working-men and for the wholesome and beautiful and proliferating arts and crafts, persisted beside her in the name of the unfinished Museum, full of gold, silver, ceramics, bricks and building dust.


25 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I agree with you. I think that I enjoyed this slightly more than you, but this book didn't work very well as a novel - there were just too many facts and not enough of a plot to drive the reading forward.

Congratulations on finishing this book - it took me a long time too!

Paperback Reader said...

Exactly, Jackie. I think it is a pity as without some of the superfluous detail and a more engaging plot then there would have been the potential for an outstanding novel.

Thanks for the congratulations. Instead of a feeling of achievement though I just feel annoyance!

savidgereads said...

Not one of your favourites then? Hahaha. I quite enjoyed it but like you and Rachel did feel this was a serious case of an author showing just how clever they could be and just how many words they could use. She si clearly a master writer and the prose is stunning, its a shame the most interesting part of the book is when the war hits (as we discussed yesterday) and is only covered for 40 pages. Hmmm!

Oh and sad news... my friend hasnt given Wolf Hall back yet, slightly narked (though think you need a long tome break) but i do have The Woman in Black in my bag!

Paperback Reader said...

Definitely not one of my favourites! Ha.

Honestly, Simon, I'm quite relieved about Wolf Hall but maybe next month once I've recovered? It means that I can ensure I have Lady Audley's Secret read in time and also just have some "me-reading".

verity said...

That's an interesting review; I don't intend to read it but I'm glad to understand why it was such a struggle and what was good about it.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I think it is important when writing negative reviews to explain why I didn't like the book; what I hated about this book, somebody else may love and it's less insidious than simply not reviewing it. This way people can make up their own minds; I may make people less likely to pick it up but it's one opinion and their choice. As I said in my review, a positive review of this book managed to put me off it but I read the book anyway.

Darlene said...

If I'm daydreaming about my grocery list or find myself looking over my book at a speck of lint on the carpet it's the books death knell. I'm going to give this one a try but it will definitely take me longer than nine days - you are a fast reader!

Paperback Reader said...

Nodding off is definitely testimony to me not liking a book (granted at 2am in bed it doesn't mean anything but twice in one day -in the morning at then around 8pm- signed The Children's Book's death warrant). You may fare better, Darlene, and enjoy it; it may work if you savour it but I just wasn't engaged enough to want to.

I am a relatively quick reader and nine days whilst reading two other books and having family visiting wasn't too bad! It's just the pressure of all the other books waiting to be and potentially enjoyed that makes nine days seem such a long time to spend on a book that I didn't like.

Jenny said...

I am concerned that I won't care for this book either. I really enjoyed Possession, but I've never been able to get anywhere with Byatt's other books. I am hoping that my love of the Victorian era, and the fact that Oscar Wilde shows up, will balance out the authorial bragging. :)

Paperback Reader said...

Jenny, I haven't read Possession yet (I still intend do but worry about it); I didn't fare too well with The Little Black Book of Stories either and conclude that Byatt isn't for me.
It didn't balance it out for me but most of the Victorian politics and movements I knew about so descriptions of those didn't help to sustain my interest for long. Oscar Wilde appears for a page and it was a highlight amongst the other 614 ;).

Rachel said...

Oh Claire I am so glad you posted this!

I am currently on page 291 and struggling. I completely identify with you feeling like you're wading through snow...me too! Will this book never end?!

The plot, if there even is one, seems to be hidden beneath the ridiculous amount of extraneous faff that we could really do without and which should have been trimmed down by her editor. Nothing actually seems to happen, or nothing that interesting, anyway!

Now don't get me wrong I am enjoying the richness of it on many levels; I do feel very immersed in the world when I start reading. I love the Victorian period so the little details are fascinating. However, I am suffering through the process of reading this and I can't see myself finishing any time soon which is incredibly frustrating as I don't like spending this long on reading one book!

farmlanebooks said...

I think I've established I'm not a Byatt fan either - I gave up on Possession after about 30 pages. I'll have to get through it at some point (as I'm trying to read all the Bookers) but agree that she sometimes triestoo hard to show how much she knows.

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, I am so glad that you feel likewise!

I appreciated the richness at times but I was incapable of immersing myself in it because it was so ... distant and cold. Her editor was Jenny Uglow, who the book is dedicated to; I wonder whether the dedication is a thank you for not cutting it down to 300 pages and telling her to write some action?!

Frustration entirely sums up my feelings - I was so desperate to just finish the bloody thing and now I have I wonder why I bothered!

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, that's the only reason I'm going to read it - the Bookers. I've been told that it is much easier to read if you skip the poetry! She definitely shows off but what annoys me is that it isn't done in an engaging way. Angela Carter had an incredible knowledge of the history of fairy tale and creatively used the detail in her own work but Byatt bored me.

Steph said...

Thanks for this review, Claire. I have only read one Byatt (Possession), which I read years ago... I have toyed with the idea of trying other books by her, but haven't really known where to start. The idea of this one intrigued me, but based on your review, I'm pretty sure it would not be a good fit - I DO get intimidated by long books, and I know I would be even more bogged down by all the historical details than you!

Rachel said...

I'm reluctant to criticise Jenny Uglow as her bio of Gaskell was fab but seriously, woman! Get your red pen out more often!!!

It's interesting how frustrated I feel at this book because I actually adored Possession and I think you'd love it too; it's much more plot driven and has actually got a fair bit of suspense; give it a go, once you've recovered from The Children's Book!

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, in that case I really think that the length of the book would overwhelm you as it is such a struggle and seems never-ending.

Rachel, I have that biography too! It has such a good reputation and deservedly so but I don't admire her editorial skills to say the very least.

You've made me feel better about tackling Possession at some point; suspense and plot driven appeals!

Ashley said...

A good review, it is nice to read an honset and open account.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Ashley, thanks for commenting. It was my pleasure (well, the reading wasn't but the honest and open account was!)

Anonymous said...

I have not read the "The Children's Book", but I felt the same way with "New Moon". I kept thinking it would have been better in 300 pages instead of 535.

Paperback Reader said...

Much can be said for a good editor, whatever the book. I have no aversion to long books as long as my interest is sustained and they aren't bulked out only for the sake of it.

Bianca Winter said...

Brilliant review, Claire. I do admire your earnestness when reviewing, and your commitment to offering a balanced conclusion.

I think the lack of plot is a real issue with this book. That's not to say that books lacking plot are no good, but just that it hard to maintain interest in something that's both meandering and long.

To make a comparison with Wolf Hall, which is a similar length and intensity, what Mantel achieves is a suberbly structured plot, that makes the novel pacy. Each section has a clear driver and works toward a culmination, event or situation that has a direct bearing on the protagonist. I was dreading Wolf Hall after The Children's Book, but ended up having nothing to fear!

Thanks for being such a great buddy during the 2009 ManBooker challenge. I will in future be able to read your reviews as they are written, rather than wait until I've finished the book!

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Bianca :).

I felt so negatively towards this book but didn't want it to be fair.

The lack of plot to propel it forward and sustain my attention and engagement was definitely the issue. It really read like a series of essays on the Victorian and Edwardian period. If it had actually been about the wondrous Children's Literature of the period then I would have been interested but that was only a misleading pretext.

I am glad to hear that Wolf Hall is only similar in length, intensity, and historical subject matter. I will read it in the coming months.

I have loved hearing/reading your reviews and look forward to the same next year - we shall have a seat each at awards night!

Samantha said...

You've done so much better than me Clair - my copy is still languishing on my bedside table and I am still no further than 120 pages in. I didn't like Possession too much either and did not finish it so things don't look very good for me finishing this one ;-)

Paperback Reader said...

Samantha, as you've seen from my post, I don't think you're missing much if you don't finish it!