Monday, March 1, 2010

The Children's Book

The last novel I reviewed for this blog was Byatt's Still Life, the review you can read here. It's taken me awhile, but I've finished Byatt's latest tome, The Children's Book. There was a lot of critical acclaim for this novel, and it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2009. Is it deserving of praise? Has Byatt maintained her quality? Let's take a look.

The Children's Book is a sprawling, gigantic novel about a whole slew of characters during an extremely turbulent and socially dynamic era, the end of the Victorian reign to the end of the Great War. At the heart of its narrative is the Wellwood family, headed by Olive, a successful author of children's books. Among her many progeny are Tom, the eldest and inspiration for Olive's protagonists, Dorothy, who aspires to be a doctor, in a tumultuous time. There's also Prosper Cain, curator of the Museum, his children Julian and Florence; Benedict Fludd, potter, his children Geraint, Imogen and Pomona. The London Wellwood, including Basil, banker, his children Charles and Griselda. All of these characters are connected by Phillip Warren, a young boy, escaped from the factories and hiding in the museum. It is Tom and Julian who find him, and the main thrust of the plot begins.

The relationships and connections of the characters are extremely complicated and ever changing. Marriages, sexual encounters, friendships, familial connections, and other elements make up this gigantic protean family. It's quite difficult to keep track of all of them for the first half of the book, as Byatt slowly and seemingly directionlessly introduces every strand and tangent.

At the same time as a family epic, Byatt is repeating some of her tropes seen in the Frederica Quartet. The Children's Book is a vast study of the intellectual, political, sexual and social development of English society from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the most deadly and destructive war the English had ever seen. Byatt spends pages upon pages informing us of various political groups, anarchist agendas, and books and paintings and plays and everything else in between.

It seems to me that there are two major themes to look at in this book. The first is that during this era, there was a proliferation of children's literature, read by the old and young alike. It appears to be a desire to return to innocence, a return to nature, to childishness. This is starkly contrasted with the political and social upheaval being felt all through Europe. This comparison and contrast is the first major theme.

The second is of the damage done by these two things to the actual individual, in a figurative and literal sense. The individual in a figurative sense disappears in England. Byatt reinforces this by the primacy of groups and collective: the Fabian Society, the Suffragists, the Anarchists, etc. This is also reinforced by the children joining, resisting, flailing against. This novel is replete with images and descriptions of crowds and people, like when Geraint moves to London and works with the other young men. Byatt describes his walking to work in a crowd of hundreds, all wearing the same grey and black suits, with the same intent look on their face.

The individual also disappears symbolically in terms of the actual children's books of the title. Olive Wellwood as a unique notebook for each of her own children. In them, she writes an individual tale which may or may not feature the child. The largest of the notebooks is Tom's, her eldest child. Most clearly, the tale is of Tom losing his shadow and searching a vast neverending labyrinth underground for it. Tom, the "real person", goes through an existential crisis and a reverence of nature, a literal return to roots. It is interesting the juxtaposition. But most tellingly, in terms of the loss of the individual, Olive adapts the private and intimate tale into a play that capitalizes on the success of Barrie's Peter Pan. The play is produced by a multicultural mixture of English and Germans, a whole group, again reinforcing this loss of individuality.

While this is an interesting and fascinating novel, I have some problems with it. Firstly, and most importantly, is the vastness of the cast. In having ten or twelve major characters, some sink into a sense of sameness. Not all characters define themselves clearly. For a good chunk of the novel, I had a murky conception of who was who. It was tough.Coming hand in hand with this problem is that not all of the storylines and arcs are attention-grabbing. Often, I wished a chapter would end so I could get back to another more riveting section.

The second major problem is one of the ending, which many others have problems with. Time moves at a specific speed for Byatt. Her control of pace is very telling. The first half of the novel moves slow, years brag by, as it was a Golden Era for those living then. Once the Widow in Windsor dies, this starts the Edwardian Age, and Byatt's pacing speeds up, almost racing towards the War. At the end, the novel ends with a rush as the Great War takes up maybe 50 pages of an over 600 page novel. The last year featured in the novel, 1919, occurs over just 15 pages. It is a seemingly rush ending to a novel. Many loose ends are tied up very quickly and without emotional impact.

Byatt is no fool. I'm sure this was deliberate. The War was horrible, and the deaths were horrendously shocking. Byatt seems to be making the ending symbolic of the actual deaths. We lived with some of these characters their entire life, and then in one brief instant (often only a sentence of description) the person is killed. We feel their death like a family member would.

I can appreciate the ending, but I don't much care for the ending. A novel is not like the real world, and above all other authors, Byatt knows the omniscient power of the narrator. The novel could have benefited with an expanded ending, even if its in opposite meaning to the current ending's symbolism.

The Children's Book is very good novel, maybe of the best of the books published in 2009 that I had the pleasure of reading, but it is not nearly as good as other novels in Byatt's oeuvre. Just like before, a Byatt novel is one that the reader sinks into, never simply skimming the surface. This is extremely commendable and I look forward to reading more from Byatt. For now, I shall continue with the Frederica Quartet, and hope the quality stays the same or improves.

So up next for this blogger is John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, which I shall start as soon as I finish this post, and of course, Babel Tower by Byatt, the third in the Frederica Quartet. I may hop back on the Booker train, as Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey stares at me from the bookcase, sad and unread. Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Really wonderful review of this book, Matthew...thanks for stopping by my blog so I could discover yours :)