02 January 2012

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt

I have to confess - I really don't like A.S. Byatt's writing. I really try to appreciate her, but there's something about her books that really irks me. However, she came to the UofC last year and did a reading, and I was very impressed. She's a lively, extremely sharp woman; a real pleasure to listen to. While she was there she read a portion of The Children's Book, and it sounded great. A friend of mine had earlier mentioned loving it, so I figured I'd give it a try. In the last few days I not only gave my students their final exams, I also spent over 24 hours in airports and on planes. So I was actually able to read the entire book in 48 hours. And I enjoyed it, though I still found parts irritating. Certain sentences seem needlessly overcomplicated and just badly written. She uses the word stolid constantly. The plot was engaging but I suspect that if I hadn't gotten to read it in one long go, I would have gotten sick of it. Though Byatt is an extraordinarily astute writer, she also has a bit of a penchant for a kind of melodrama that I find really off-putting, and totally out of keeping with her otherwise high level thoughts.  Still, it's an intelligent book.

In a way, it's a historical novel, evoking turn of the century England and the various political upheavals of the time. The first portion is a somewhat idyllic description of a group of children, the next one is of the adults in their lives and their various sexual misadventures, and the third rather curiously opens with a reflection on why the culture of the early 20th century was so fascinated in the idea of childhood. From there, it chronicles the children and their progress to maturity, and then the first world war. That final portion is where it really leans heavily into rather cliche war-time stuff in a somewhat disappointing way.

One could also see it as a work in the tradition of the great realist novels, a comparison I think it not only invites but also deserves. The sprawling cast of characters occasionally feels ungainly - some of them disappear and resurface in rather awkward ways, where you think "oh, that guy? matter? ooops.", and others seem bloodless and largely irrelevant - but also does a fairly admirable job presenting a whole swath of socio-political issues embodied in actual people. Some of the characters are so convincing that I was genuinely moved when reading about them, though this may be at least partly due to serious sleep-deprivation.

Overall, I'm not a Byatt convert, but I definitely think this is one of her better books.

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