Saturday, June 5, 2010
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book
SUMMARY: Spanning the Victorian era through World War I, this novel follows a large interconnected cast of characters through the tumult of the large-scale cultural, political, and social changes sweeping Britain and the world. The novel begins with Olive Wellwood, a famous children’s book author, and her oldest son’s meeting with an artistically talented runaway in the corridors underneath the South Kensington museum later known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The reader follows the young man back to the Wellwood home where both become immersed in the passionate world of the unconventional family and its equally unusual network of friends.
ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: I was very excited about this book; I am a big fan of Byatt in general and her earlier novel Possession is one of my favorite novels of all time. My expectations were generally not disappointed; I really enjoyed this book. It is a great but occasionally flawed novel.
As with her other works, Byatt immerses the reader in the time period and culture in which the narrative is set through the use of intricate and beautifully drawn details. Here, the amount of information packed into the narrative can be overpowering or distracting. As a history buff and a person particularly in love with 19th century Britain, I very much enjoyed her historical detail and didn’t mind the occasional interludes of pure socio-political background information too much. However, some readers might find such passage uninteresting; even I prefer the history to be incorporated into the plot and character development.
I continue to admire and enjoy the intimate portrayals of individual characters Byatt achieves, especially in this novel, which contains at least 10 to 20 characters of some significance. She manages to juggle the multiple storylines and characters quite well generally but the sheer numbers can become overwhelming at times. Certain characters disappear and reappear from the narrative and for the first few chapters I had a little difficulty keeping track of them. Certain characters remain underdeveloped in comparison to others—an almost inevitable result of a narrative following so many characters over such a lengthy period of time.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Byatt impeccably crafts a detailed and fascinating world for the reader to become completely engrossed in. For such a long and in-depth novel, The Children’s Book hits some beautiful emotional notes. The final sections dealing with WWI are especially poignant and the portions describing the young women’s, especially Dorothy’s, struggle to find a life that balances intellectual fulfillment and the world’s expectations. I was also completely fascinated by the novel’s exploration of the side roads of history; Byatt delves into puppetry, theatre, the women’s suffrage movement, children’s literature, women in medicine, and women’s education. I found myself reading this novel into wee hours of the morning and for me, that is one of the key signs of a good book.