Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Report: The Children's Book / A.S. Byatt

As someone who readily admits to being lured in by cover art let me just say that as soon as I saw this book I desired it desperately. C'mon, it's gorgeous right? Something about the colours and fonts brings me back to the old fairy tale editions that I had as a child - which, I guess is the point.

"The Children's Book" - or as one reviewer called it "Possession - the next generation" is a novel spanning 25 years in England and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. It's a massive and exhausting read, in fact it took me several months to get through. Mind you, I was simultaneously reading three non-fiction titles.

The first half of the book immerses you in the daily life of the Silver Age of England. Everything seems tinged with magic, loveliness and tea time. The children of the central family have idyllic yet independent lives running through the fields and play rooms of the countryside; and the adults have passionate, intellectual and creative relationships with large groups of artists and thinkers. Their stories made me want to don a heavy velvet dress with intricate brocade and host a backyard staging of Shakespearean drama. Alas, velvet makes me itch and I don't have a balcony let alone a back yard.

This is one of those books that tells stories within the story. Olive Wellwood, the main female character, is a writer of children's fairy tales and she maintains a tale based on each of her children, adding to it as they grow. Brief chapters from each of these tales help to introduce us to the children and also to highlight her relationship and expectations of them. They're fascinating and dark stories with adult twists that make Harry Potter look like a nursery rhyme. In fact Byatt has made no secret of the fact that she was disappointed by JK Rowling's lack of imagination and pedestrian narrative - Byatt is clearly more a fan of the slow-burning, insidious brand of evil.

I liked this book very much although I must admit to being bored and frustrated when Byatt wandered away from the drama at hand only to introduce a history lesson - ensuring that the reader understood every minute historical reference was distracting and diminished the impact of some highly emotional story lines. This was particularly disruptive in the last quarter of the book as we enter the era of WWI. I don't think I'm giving much away by saying that alot of people die in these last chapters and I found the treatment of some of them to be very quick and dismissive. There was a lack of closure and the suddenly stoic and unemotional voice felt foreign to me. Perhaps this had more to do with evoking the tone of war and front-line response than I was prepared for.

All in all this was a very engaging, engrossing, amusing and distressing read. The style of her writing is very high-brow and reflects the time period of the characters. This would be a great story to read over the winter, definitely one where I could curl up with a cuppa tea and get lost for a few hours.

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