Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Children's Book by A S Byatt

The Children's Book begins in the late 1890's and spans the decades until WWI has begun. The book ranges between a multitude of characters, mainly contained within three distinct families. As such, it's difficult to get a handle on who the protagonist is, and who the story belongs to.

Starting with the Wellwoods, a successful female novelist and financier/political journalist who between them have a considerable number of children, we enter the family home in Kent and quickly become acquainted with extended family and numerous friends. The story loosely follows a generation of children as they grow up and become young adults... and interspersed with the flighty narrative of the children coming of age are chapters or sections that form a potted history of the era.

As a work of historical fiction (and I'm not sure that's what it is), the novel is not without merit, though the tone is somewhat peculiar - very cold and distant, as though recording fact. As a work of imaginative fiction, the form is strange and seemed to me to be very convoluted. It's not clear what is gained from following so many stories in such (patchy) detail - I'm not sure what they bring to each other. A thought has just struck me about the similarities in intention between the actual novel and the reported feat of Olive Wellwood. Olive creates a 'book' for each of her children (and there are many) - the books contain stories that have an internal logic and premise, but that don't necessarily link together aside from the fact that they are all fantastical. Perhaps The Children's Book's format reflects what it would be like to try and read the (imagined) children's books in the order they were written?

Though I liked some of the characters, none of them featured strongly enough in the book to grip me. The only element that elicited curiosity on my part was the relationship between Tom Wellwood and Olive Wellwood (mother and son) - there's a suggestion that Olive kills Tom, and that the book she has continued to write for him is at the root of why or how. The mystery remains at the book's close, by when the author has unceremoniously killed off many of the male characters, and especially those that featured as 'bit parts'. A comment on the indiscrimination of war, perhaps?

Given the novel's scope and scale, it can certainly be described as ambitious, and certain parts of the book were enjoyable and compelling if not engrossing. The fact that it left me feeling as though I had missed something important (and had wasted a lot of time) is not in its favour.

Sadly, the book failed to be enough of any one thing for me to recommend it, though the writer can definitely 'paint a picture'. A more robust relationship with an editor required, perhaps?

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