Monday, August 24, 2009

A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book, Chatto & Windus, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

This novel follows the lives of several English characters for twenty years, between 1895 and 1915. This was a time of technological innovation and social change, with a particular focus on the changing role of women. Some of the characters are involved in the literary and artistic movements of the time; others are politically or socially active.

The book manages to combine a very intimate description of the lives of individuals and how the era influenced their lives with an impressive overview of the period. It contains some digressions not directly related to the plot, showing what was happening in the world around the characters, sometimes referring to, or quoting, real historical figures. These digressions indicate the depth of the author's research, and are well-written and relevant. However, some readers may become impatient to learn about the characters and the development of the plot. It seems to me that authors sometimes feel they have done so much research that it would be a waste not to write about it. There is always a fine balance regarding how much factual background should be included in a historical novel, and since many fiction readers will never read non-fictional history, this may be their only exposure to such facts. In this case, I think readers who do become impatient and skip over the historical digressions to the next section including the fictional characters will not lose much, while those who enjoy reading the entire book will benefit.

The main characters are of two generations, parents and children, at the time of the story's beginning. Among the parent generation are Olive Wellwood, an author of children's stories; Prosper Cain, a curator at a new London museum; and Benedict Fludd, a gifted but disturbed potter. The story follows them, some of their friends and relatives, and their children. Among the children, Olive's daughter Dorothy, who decides to become a doctor, which was very rare and difficult for women at the time; and Philip Warren, who becomes an apprentice to Benedict Fludd.

Olive is a matriarch, enjoying the company of her large family and many friends. She has a complex relationship with her husband and sister. She writes stories for each of her children, some of which are quoted in the novel. Byatt gets the tone and attitude of this sort of writing just right. The novel describes several social gatherings - parties, picnics, plays, bicycle rides, lectures and summer camps. It also follows some of the characters' intimate thoughts and decisions. The story is full of dramatic events and revelations, such as the discovery of people's true parentage, suicide, unwanted pregnancy and the dark secrets that motivate some of the artistic expression of the main characters.

As the children grow up, they have to find their way in the changing world, choosing careers, studies, political activism and relationships. Towards the end of the novel, the historically aware reader is dreading the arrival of the First World War, with the loss of young lives it brought. Not surprisingly, some of the young men are killed, while those who return are changed. This section may have a stronger impact on readers in war-free countries. I read it in a country that has had wars every few years since its foundation, and expects to have war casualties in every generation, though obviously not as numerous as those of the world wars.

I enjoyed this book very much, as I have enjoyed Byatt's previous work. The writing is outstanding, the characters are realistic, vivid, and aware of their own flaws, and the setting is presented realistically. I particularly liked the depiction of the ethos of childhood. As a young child in England, I grew up reading many children's books written during this period, which my mother and grandmother, and perhaps also great-grandmother, had read as children. In this way, I imbibed some of the era's attitude towards childhood. Children were not quite equal, but were part of the family and were considered to have their own individual personalities and preferences. They were encouraged to read books, engage in arts and crafts, participate in parties, plays and picnics and generally develop themselves.

I recommend this book both to readers familiar with the history and literature of the period and to those for whom this will be a journey of discovery.

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