This is my first Byatt book. It is really quite disgraceful that it has taken me this long to actually pick up one of her books, but Posession
really did not have a title that made me want to read it, and there are so many other books out there. Also, apart form Tolkien, I am deeply suspicious of poetry intermingled with prose. Usually because the poetry is not very good and seems like a waste of my time. People kept telling me I should really, really read her books (except Camilla, who was adamant I shouldn't), and so I finally tipped over and purchased The Childrens' Book
because it had such a nice cover.
It is a good book. This may be no startling revelation, as it made the shortlist of the Man Booker prize, and Byatt is generally hailed as a good writer, but I was not always sure it would be. There are elements of it that annoyed me, but that may just be because I am me, and there are a very specific set of aspects to my life that make me me. Then again, those specific aspects may have helped me enjoy it more than I otherwise would have. We shall never know.
At any rate. My period, what I study in my everyday existence, is Victorian and Edwardian Britain. This is intersped with hefty amounts of literary theory. When Byatt then writes a book about Victorian and Edwardian England and peppers it with said theory, there is bound to be something that rubs me the wrong way unless she writes the book specifically with me in mind (and even then...).
I found I was more critical of the book in the beginning. The first half, more or less. I was immediately struck by her writing, which is wonderfully coloured and textured. She has a healthy appreciation for commas. This is good. And she had the good sense to introduce her impressive cast of characters in very small doses and make them distinctive before allowing them all to interact. This, too, is good. And it starts off with engaging people (two boys, one the son of a famous (female) author, the other the son of a man in charge of the precious metals of the Victoria and Albert Museum) in intriguing surroundings (said museum) and an exciting situation (following a third boy into the cellars of the museum). This is rarer than one might think, and this, too, is good.
And then, it seemed to me, Byatt started overthinking. Her characters, and her narrator (omniscient poking and prodding and incessantly anlaysing the characters, their motives (both unconscious and otherwise) and their attitudes) sometimes felt like a tour of the main ideas of literary theory from the 70s till today. That annoyed me. Byatt seems to write in order to be analysed, and then (perhaps because she does not trust her reader to do the job) she does the analysing as well. It is unsubtle.
In order to get out of the way all that annoys me, so that I may go on to tell you why you should read the book anyway, I'll also note that I get tired of descriptions of sex for the sake of simple descriptions of sex. Now, again, this is something that annoyed me more in the beginning, as it seemed to be justified by one of the themes of the book as it progressed. I just wanted to mention it. It is not that I don't think people had sex in Victorian times (the uptight Victorians covering table legs because they were indecent is a well know myth that rather misrepresents the period, but Byatt makes it sound like it was the summer of free love at times.
Now. Writing history is difficult. Very few authors I have come across have really managed that. Writing not only political history, but art history and social history and still be able to bring characters to life, that is very, very rare. And Byatt managed to. I am still a little amazed at how excellently that was managed. She does it by alternating between more traditional novelistic parts which follow one or two of her characters, and more sweeping and fast-paced parts that describes the period (with some truly excellent choices of historical trivia which I really, really hope is factual, and I expect it to be because these passages have the ring of fact rather than fiction, even if she places facts about her fictional characters in between). These parts are rather seamlessly woven together: there are no clear segregation, only the shift of pace and focus.
I suspect there is a lot of research behind this book, and at times I think she has stuck very close to one source or another. I don't mean that she has copied it, but that she has followed the mood of it. There is for example her portrayal of Newnham College, which has exactly the feel and information, not to mention the feminist context, of Virginia Woolf's ``A Room of One's Own'', but is again introduced to the lives of her characters. I am not complaining about this trait. I suspect it is part of what makes it such an interesting book to read. There is also a stunning
description of the World Exhibition in Paris. I wish I had a time machine.
There are books where one can sit down and say "the theme of this book is" with a straight face. This isn't one of them. It is almost baroque in its insane eclecticness, and it seems to want to cover it all. It deals with women's liberation, homosexuality (Wilde makes an appearance), fidelity (or lack thereof), the relationship between parents and children (although Byatt's characters seem to be exceptionally insane here -- then again, placid and normal people make for less interesting books), art and politics (frequently opposed, and Byatt plays with that opposition by making her political characters aestheticise politics, for example), the British class system, and towards the end it lets its threads touch on the problems that would be so central to later European history. The book ends with the end of World War I, and there is a sense that it is the end of an era.
The title. It is "The Children's Book", but there isn't a children's book in it. There are many children's books, and there is one main child's book. Having reflected long and hard on this (because it started to annoy me), I came to the conclusion that it refers to itself: Byatt's book is the book about the children. It follows a group of them from childhood until they get married or enter adult life in some other way. But it is also about adults who behave like children, about the Edwardian fascination with fairy tales and perpetual childhood.
There are poems in this book, too, but they are confined to one short chapter.
At one point there is a character who complains that Jung changed his dreams. Byatt changed mine. Not permanently, but I found I had very vivid and strange dreams when I read this book. It may be because there is so much information in it that it takes my brain a few hours of night time to process it, or it could be because it has a very dreamlike rhythm at times, and characters that aren't really dreamlike (in the traditional sense), but that are placed so wholly before you that they are easily absorbed (that may just be me again, though). It is a strange book, and I recommend it to pretty much everyone.