It's been three weeks since I finished reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and I've been putting off blogging about it because I'm worried about how to do it justice. At nearly 900 pages long in the paperback edition, the novel offers a lot to wrestle with, and it might take more time/energy than I have right now to come to a complete understanding of every thread of the book, and write an all-encompassing review.
Nonetheless, I am a huge fan of A.S. Byatt, so I want to write about her latest novel. As readers of this blog know, I think Possession is brilliant, and The Virgin in the Garden (and the character of Frederica Potter) is very personally meaningful to me. Therefore I looked forward to reading The Children's Book more than I had to any novel in years. A big, huge Byatt novel dealing with one of my favorite periods of British history--the late Victorian era through the Great War--and particularly with the artistic and cultural movements of that time? Sign me up! (Byatt has been quoted as saying she prefers the mid-Victorians of Possession to the late-Victorians of The Children's Book, but I'm the opposite.)
The big theme of The Children's Book is the loss of innocence. When the book begins in 1895, the principal characters are children, growing up in a "golden age"--their parents, many of whom subscribe to liberal ideas like Fabian socialism, indulge them, throw costume parties, give them wonderful children's literature to read, etc. But as the years pass, the various characters are forced to face the darker sides of life: incest, unwanted pregnancy, hazing, revolutionary violence, sexism, betrayal, and finally World War I.
All the same, and despite the book's length, I thought this theme could have been more effectively dramatized: more emphasis placed on just how delightful it was to be a (wealthy, indulged) child in 1895, so that the later tragedies would be even more moving. Indeed, despite the title, The Children's Book is not really about childhood--it's more about adolescence and young adulthood. I very much enjoyed a section in the middle of the book that follows three young women--aspiring doctor Dorothy Wellwood, her cousin Griselda, and their friend Florence--as they struggle to educate themselves and figure out their place in the world as "New Women."
Educated women, smart women, people who think too much--these are some of Byatt's favorite themes, found in nearly all of her fiction. Other trademark Byatt motifs also run through The Children's Book: preoccupations with group dynamics, fairy tales, the seacoast of England, and sex in hotel rooms. And a desire to show off her research. Lots and lots of research. A large chunk of the novel takes place at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, and it's full of descriptions of the amazing Art Nouveau artworks that the characters witness at the Exposition. But the plot barely moves forward--nothing much actually happens to the characters while they are in Paris.
There are so many characters in The Children's Book that, as The Complete Review notes, it is "one of those books that either should have concentrated more closely on fewer characters, or been expanded into a much larger work." I can't decide whether it's too long and should have had some of its characters/plots eliminated, or whether it should be a 1400-page trilogy instead of a 900-page novel. With such an overstuffed book, it is inevitable that certain plot threads will be dropped or unsatisfactorily wrapped up. In fact, it's lucky for Byatt that World War I comes along and allows her to kill off several of her characters, or else she would really have had a hard time ending the novel.
And yet, even though we haven't necessarily gotten to know the characters as well as we would have liked, the World War I scenes are very affecting. Byatt devotes only about 50 pages to the war and its aftermath (the same number of pages as she uses to describe the Paris Exposition), so the litany of deaths and other horrors is swift and brutal. Tears filled my eyes on at least three separate occasions as I read these last 50 pages--and I hardly ever cry at novels.
There were definitely parts of The Children's Book that didn't grab me, that moved too slowly or else glossed over what would seem to be important moments, or narrated history rather than dramatizing it. But then I remember Byatt's brilliance at writing about what it feels like to be a cerebral person (particularly a woman), her ability to synthesize history and draw parallels, and the power of the World War I scenes. And, though this novel takes place 100+ years ago, the characters feel like recognizable people. In 1895, there were wealthy, faddish Fabian socialists who indulged their children, fetishized fresh vegetables and beautiful handicrafts, and threw fancy-dress parties. In 2010, particularly in the Bay Area, there are wealthy, faddish limousine liberals who behave like "helicopter parents," patronize farmers' markets and local artisans, and go to Burning Man. Not all that different, eh?