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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

2009 Booker Prize Nominee "The Children's Book" by A.S. Byatt (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official A.S. Byatt Website
A.S. Byatt at Wikipedia
Order "The Children's Book" HERE

INTRODUCTION: I have heard of A.S. Byatt for a long time but I was never motivated enough to pick up any book written by her, though I watched and enjoyed the "Angels and Insects" movie made based on her book with the same name.

However "The Children's Book" sounded like a book that would interest me based on the blurb and I read some excerpts from other AS Byatt works, including getting "The Biographer's Tale" which I plan to read soon also, so I ordered the novel from the link above and once it came a week or so later, I dropped everything I was reading and enjoyed this magnificent novel.

OVERVIEW: It is London 1895 close to midsummer; the large household of Olive and Humphry Wellwood is preparing to celebrate as usual with a party at their country home of Todefright. As it happens, this year the party will be even larger than expected and presage some changes in their lives, though it also will serve as a great introduction to the main characters of this saga which will be followed in some detail until 1907 with snippets all the way to the superb epilogue in 1919.

There are four (mostly) English and one German households whose lives will intertwine in the novel, though lots of other characters will play smaller but important roles.

The central "adult" character that anchors the novel is Olive herself; a miner's daughter with a gift for story-telling and imagining escape worlds from her dreary childhood life, she was sent into "service" after tragedy struck her family, but she fled to London with her younger sister Violet and later caught the eye of young idealistic lecturer Humphry, second son of a "City" family with an eye for pretty women.

Some 16 years later she is a successful writer of fairy tales and children fantasies, with a household of 7 surviving children from newborn to 13 ably managed by her spinster sister Violet, while her husband is working as a banker in the City, though he is writing pseudonymous attacks on the corruption of the "in crowd" and is growing more and more and disenchanted with his "official" work. Or so everyone believes.

Of the children, the eldest surviving boy Tom, age 13 and a "wild soul who loves nature" and the eldest girl Dorothy, age 11, who is very practical and wants to escape the shackles of womanhood the late Victorian society imposes on "girls of family and breeding" and become a doctor will be among the main characters of the novel, while the rest of the children will play a more marginal role.

The "City" Wellwoods, Basil the older brother, very successful and very "in the crowd" banker, married with Katharina the daughter of a German bank owner in the City and his two children Charles 14 and Griselda 11, first cousin and best friend of Dorothy will come also to the Todefright party. While the parents will have again less important roles, the 2 children, Charles who will call himself Karl (as in Karl Marx) and lead a secret life of socialist rebellion, and Griselda who will also gravitate towards her German heritage are two main characters in the novel.

Widowed Major Prosper Cain, admirer of Olive and father of Julian 15 and Florence 13 whose wife was Italian and died on Florence' birth, is in charge of "precious metal artifacts" at the Victoria and Albert museum, where the novel opens with Tom and Julian finding a strange lower class boy, Philip Owen, with an artistic bent and aged about 15 who seems to have been living in the museum basement for a while, trading art prints to visitors for pocket money and scraps of food. All here including Prosper will also be main characters in the novel.

The Fludds are a very strange household led by famous but with quite dark impulses genius potter Benedict Fludd who lives in poverty in a house on the marshes not far from Todefright. His apathetic wife "Seraphita", and three children, beautiful Pomona, talented Imogen and ambitious Geraint scrap a meager living while their father looks for perfection. Philip will prove to be the perfect apprentice to Fludd, while Philip' sister Elsie another proud working class girl that wants to better her condition will become the linchpin of the Fludd household.

On tour from Germany and invited to perform at the midsummer party, master puppeteer Anselm Stern is another character of importance and later we will meet his wife and two boys also.

And there are lots and lots of other people, including a "sainted" reverend, a writer and fighter for women rights who loves women all too well, his wife, Fabian activists, anarchists...

A huge cast but once you get to know them, you will appreciate how well they are drawn the author so they come to life and you will feel they all are "real people" you could meet..

"The Children's Book" stands at 600+ pages divided into four main parts, of which Beginnings covering the Midsummer party of 1895 and its aftermath and The Golden Age till another Midsummer Party in 1902 form the main body of the novel with the Silver Age from 1902 till 1914 and the short The Age of Lead covering the War being more snippet-like, though a lot still happens of course.

ANALYSIS: "The Children's Book" is first and foremost about escape - whether in fantasy like Olive whose writings not only allow her to deal with "real life" problems and turn a blind eye to the goings of Humphry, but also start producing more and more needed income for the large household, as her husband quits his well paid bank job to pursue his "reformist" newspaper writing and interests under his real name, or in craft like Philip or Fludd, or in socialist fantasies like Karl, or in study like Dorothy, nature like Tom...

Almost everyone of the main characters wants to escape the bounds that society puts on her or him - of all Major Cain and Basil are the most conformist, but both have their weakness and foibles too. Even when the escape goes the other way as in Geraint who desires nothing more than to be a successful City-man with an elegant wife, mansion and loads of cash, my impression of the novel as celebrating "escape" was very strong and it was one reason I loved it so much. Because while it has its price - and there is tragedy and darkness galore - the author also strongly believes that such escape is possible...

Another main characteristics of the novel is the variety and strangeness of many characters - from anarchistic Russians, to Fabian society devotees to societies for the advancement of women rights, we are plunged into the turmoil of the era.

The novel has also a very strong feminist tint - Olive and then Elsie and Dorothy first and foremost, but quite a few other women characters are very strong and want much more than society was willing to offer them at that time; and they achieve some too, again at various cost, but...

The sense of place in the books is also superb - from Todefright and its surrounding forests, to the marshes nearby, to the Universal Paris exposition of 1900, to the boisterous Munich of early 1900's, to the Italian countryside, we visit quite a few locations with one or more of our characters and it feels "real".

Despite its length and many characters and threads, the novel flows so well that I read it in two days and I was extremely sad to see it ending; while the War brings a lot of tragedy and death, the ending is superb and life affirming as well as planting the seeds for another novel with the next generation of children so to speak, if the author wishes to go there.

While I read many superb novels in 2009 and I have many favorites (HERE and HERE for the favorite 2009 releases read in the period up to early July), "The Children's Book" belongs to the select category of novels I plan to revisit for a long time to come.


Anonymous said...

Great Job!

Here is anew fantasy that has received rave reviews. I believe you will enjoy reading it.


JS Huntlands said...

Set in today’s day and time, Me and My Best Friend is about a young boy, his faithful companion and their exciting adventures.

Henry and Liam are the best of friends and they do everything together. They can run and play all day long. But when Henry the puppy gets tired and tries to take a nap, three-year-old Liam keeps waking him, wanting him to play some more. Will Henry get any rest?

Get your children involved with this beautifully illustrated book. Your child will love to match up words and pictures, and find Liam, who keeps hiding in his bedroom. Perfect for the young reader!

About the Author

J.S. Huntlands is the author of Nick Twisted Minds and is currently working on more books in this series, as well as 23 more books in the Me and My Best Friend series. Huntlands is a full-time writer, as well as a mom to a wonderful four-year-old boy. This book is dedicated to her son in hopes that he never forgets his best friend.


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