The OF Blog: A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book

Once the idea of secret selves had begun to spread little roots in his mind, he began to look at everyone differently, half as a game, half as a dangerous piece of research.  After the morning with Tartarinov he walked with Tom along the road past the woods and onto the Downs, where Toby Youlgreave had his cottage, which, he insisted, had once belonged to a swineherd.  Toby was coaching the boys for the general essays they would have to write.  It was a cold crisp winter day, with frost on the ground and snow in the air.  They wore caps and mufflers and woollen gloves.  Toby gave them mugs of tea, and toasted them crumpets at his inglenook hearth.  The floor of his small sitting-room was populated by uneven pillars of stacked books, on some of which previous mugs of tea had stood, and butter had been smeared.  He had set them an essay on "Dreams" and told them to take that word any way they liked - dreams, nightmares, daydreams, hopes for the future. He had said they would need to find vivid examples of whatever they chose.  He made them read out what they had written, as though they were in a university tutorial.  Tom read well, clearly, without expression, a little too fast.  Charles paced himself, listening to his own argument.  He liked to argue, even about dreams.  Tom had chosen to write about real, night-time dreams, what they felt like, what they meant.  Charles, who knew Tom would do that, had deliberately chosen the moral and political meaning of the word, the dream of justice, the dream of a future life, Utopia.  Tom wrote about the sensation of dreaming, and distinguished between those dreams in which the dreamer is neither actor nor watcher but a kind of looker-on, like the voice of a storyteller in a story.  Almost commenting, but not quite, because all the same you were sort of helpless, you couldn't make decisions in dreams, but you did know you were in them, and that you would wake to the real world.  Sometimes you tried to stay asleep, to see what would happen.  Then there were the dreams you were really in and had the sensation that you couldn't get out - dreams of being buried alive, or told you were to be hanged tomorrow (he had that one often) or dreams where you were being pursued, and the beast you thought was behind you turned out to have gone about and around, and was waiting for you at the end of the corridor.  It was odd that the dreams you were completely inside were almost all bad dreams. (pp. 194-195)

Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, one of Great Britain's most prestigious literary awards, A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is a sprawling, 675 page historical novel that spans from the last years of the Victorian Age to the immediate aftermath of World War I.  At the center of the novel is the family of children's novelist Olive Wellwood and how their lives, full of bittersweet romances, flights of fancy, and tragic events, relate to the seven stories that Olive pens about them.  During the quarter-century that the novel spans, The Children's Book takes an interesting dual-narrative approach that serves to weave a story that is much stronger as a whole than if it were to be considered by its component parts.

The Children's Book can be read on two levels.  First, there is the complex narrative of the Wellwood children and the adopted runaway Philip.  Byatt does an excellent job fleshing out the characters and their unique traits.  The scene quoted above serves as a microcosm of what transpires between the pragmatic Tom and the idealist Charles (later, Karl).  Byatt breathes life into these characters, so as Tom, Charles, their siblings and Philip grow into adulthood, the reader becomes immersed in what they are experiencing.  From every hope held to every betrayal done, the Wellwood children and Philip live lives that hint at another interpretation of Dream that differs from those given by Tom and Charles.  Some might find Byatt's treatment of these characters to be overly bleak and dour, but considering the second narrative level from which this novel could be interpreted, I found the sometimes-brutal, heart-wrenching agonies that the children experience to be suitable for the parallels that Byatt created to their times.

In addition to the novel working as a tragic look into the lost innocence of childhood, The Children's Book works as an excellent historical novel that presents a vivid image of the British Empire just before the calamities of the 20th century.  From the idealistic Fabians to their darker, more violent anarchist brethren, the Great Britain of 1895 to 1913 was a study in contrasts.  Charles/Karl's flight into the world of the anarchists, his rejection of his comfortable (and somewhat hypocritical) bourgeois upbringing parallels the rise of the Guides in England and the Wandervogel movement among German youth in the two decades before World War I.  Byatt depicts the world of opulent decadence almost pitch-perfectly, as the reader is immersed in a mindscape that correlates almost perfectly with the imagines of a genteel, tamed landscape where the bourgeois dared to dream that eternal prosperity was about to emerge.  Some dreams, when shattered, are damning to those betrayed by them.

The Children's Book thus can be read as a penetrating look into the psychological tensions between Victorian and Edwardian aspirations and the often-brutal reality that underlay these mad dreams.  Although the book sometimes overindulges in presenting British and German societies of the pre-World War I era, to the point where the Wellwood children and Philip tend to fade into the backdrop too much, on the whole Byatt's marriage of the wide societal narrative approach with the intimate narrative works well.  If the children and their parents risk becoming little more than metaphors for what was transpiring in Great Britain over the 1895-1919 historical period, by the end, Byatt has mostly succeeded in creating a complex narrative tapestry where the children reflect the times and the times find an echo in the children.

It certainly helps that Byatt has considerable prose talent.  Although some might find the quoted passage to be overlong, I found it to contain not just the germ of what was to transpire later, but also to contain evidence that Byatt could take a little snippet and expand it into something of greater, societal import later, before collapsing it back into the personal.  While there are certainly several places (in particular, the third section as a whole) where Byatt's approach feels less smooth and polished, on the whole this narrative approach created a moving, evocative story that is very haunting.  The Children's Book was one of the finest historical novels that I have read this year and it is one of my favorite fictions for 2009.  Highly recommended.


Cindy said...

When I first started to read The Children's Book I thought it was overly worded. However as I kept reading I lost that feeling and found that I really was enjoying it. Sadly it came from the library and it has a huge holding list so I returned it halfway through. But I agreed with everything you said.

Lsrry said...

I don't believe I addressed this much (if at all) in my review, but I recall thinking that Byatt was purposely using an Edwardian writing style to convey a sense of time and place while also setting things up for the near-disastrous falls that took place by the end.

Hope you get a chance to finish it in the near future. I thought highly enough of the book to buy a second copy for a co-worker as a Christmas gift.

Cindy said...

I'm number 63 on the hold list so it might be a while. I might break down and see if I can find it at a decent price in the store but I'm unsure if I want to own it.

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