The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt


byattI’m afraid this review of The Children’s Book marks this reader’s goodbye to the new works of A.S. Byatt. That’s a hard decision to make — I have been reading her for more than 30 years and Possession was my desert island book for more than a decade. Byatt has always had a penchant for adult fairy tales and lengthy poems that made reading her a challenge — it has become more pronounced in her recent work and has now taken her into territory that I no longer want to explore.

The Children’s Book is a sprawling, 615-page tome that opens in 1895 and extends through the Great War, closing off the reign of Queen Victoria and exploring the Edwardian Age in the process. It comes with both a political and cultural context as background framing material. The characters are all leftish artsy types. The political ones get involved in the Fabian Society and suffragette movements — Byatt explores a number of the splinters and factions that seem to be part of all left-wing movements. While the war is a part of the book, it gets pretty short shrift. The author devotes even more attention to the cultural side, the Arts and Crafts movement — most particularly potting, silverwork and productions featuring marionnettes — is explored in some detail.

And then there are the characters, dozens of them by my not so rigorous count:

— Olive and Humphrey Wellwood have seven children (and all nine of these stories are visited in the book). She is a famous writer of children’s and adult fairy-tales; he’s a banker who abandons that trade in favour of left-wing journalism.
— Major Prosper Cain is Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, soon to become the Victoria and Albert. We meet him in the opening pages of the book; Olive is seeking advice on some details for one of her stories. We also meet his son and are soon introduced to his daughter (no wife in this family — he is a widower).
— Humphrey Wellwood’s brother, Basil, is a more conventional banker. Another wife and two more children are added to the character list from this family.
–Benedict Fludd, is a brilliant, tempermental potter with a wife and two daughters. His Dungeness studio also becomes a home to the potentially brilliant young Philip Warren, whose homeless sister also shows up to tend house.

When you add in a spinster sister or two, a family of German theatre artists, the compulsory Victorian vicar and a few other supporting characters who are necessary for the complicated plot, the total approaches three dozen. The adults are all potentially interesting — the problem is that in juggling such a large cast, the author has to desert them for lengthy stretches and none of them gets fully developed. And while a few coming of age story lines would be interesting, a dozen are not. It becomes difficult to figure out just which child is which as the book unfolds.

I know pretty much as much as I want to about the Fabians and the suffragettes and the book didn’t provide any revelations on that front. I confess to no inherent interest in the Arts and Crafts movement and again gained no insights that changed that.

There are fairy tales. Olive Wellwood writes an ongoing tale for each of her seven children (hence the title of the book) and excerpts from a number of them are included in the book — lengthy stretches of italic type that make the reading even more difficult. And Byatt has certainly not lost her talent for incredibly detailed description:

The parlour had dark green Morris and Co. wallpaper, spangled with scarlet berries, and a Morris set of spindly Sussex settle and chairs, with rush seats. There were woven rugs on a dark floor, a high shelves of orderly books. The possible tutor was already present, a young German, from Munich. Dr Joachim Susskind, in a threadbare suit, and wearing a red tie. Dr Susskind had flowing, hay-coloured, dry hair, and a fine waving moustache to go with it. His eyes were blue and mournful, not clear, glassy sky-blue like Dr Skinner’s but a clouded, faded blue, the diluted blue of an almost-white Small Blue butterfly, Tom thought. He looked mild and harmless.

Uncle. I give up.

I considered not reviewing this book because I don’t like writing reviews unless I can point to some readers who would like the book — and I suspect there are some out there for The Children’s Book. Byatt’s description of the Arts and Craft movement may have passed me by but others may be interested. I also suspect a parent who has gone through the coming of age process with a couple of children would also find more there than I did.

So, a fond goodbye to Ms. Byatt. I will continue to reread her earlier work with interest, but for me her oeuvre is now finished.

42 Responses to “The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    GASP:-) Just can’t get enough of this book right now, magnificent…


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dgr: I think you probably fit both those categories at the end of my review. Certainly none of it landed with me — I think Byatt has simply headed into territory that doesn’t speak to my interests or tastes. I don’t fault anyone else for liking it.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dgr: I had read your post when I was about 200 pages into this book — and struggling. I find it interesting that our experience with Byatt is almost a total reverse mirror image. I’ll ponder that. 🙂


  4. Trevor Says:

    Very interesting to have two such respected reviewers have such a divergent view of a book. I’ve only read (and loved) Possession. Now you have me wondering what side of the fence I’d be on in this one. I’m not into the crafty stuff, but I do have small children.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    If you are up to it Trevor, I would be most interested in your opinion. Then again, dgr and I diverged on The Northern Clemency as well — I do think there are some books that cater to different interests, even among people who frequently have similar opinions.


  6. workingwords100 Says:

    Maybe she write have another theme in the future? You never know.

    I feel the same about Atwood.

    I read only Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi works. I don’t like her other books for some reason.

    While, I have friends who hate her sci fi novels.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isobel: Atwood is another writer who left me behind — I’m with your friends who hate her sci-fi novels. When she went there, I was happy to go somewhere else.


  8. Rhys Says:

    Good Morning Kevin,

    I love A S Byatt.. I think I have been reading her for twenty years.. reading and re reading that is. She has a very high profile here in the UK at the moment and is on the radio every other day ….. I think she is on Radio 3 tonight. I prefer Still Life and also some of her short stories to Possession which I found too contrived … but what I most like is her brain and the way it works… she does let you share her thoughts and intellectual explorations and I also love her approach to writing which is so artisan … you can almost follow the designing and the building of the story brick by brick …any way I hope you don’t stop reading her as I am sure there is still more of interest to discover in her previously published work which you said you had enjoyed.


  9. Trevor Says:

    I’m not sure I’m to reading this yet, Kevin. I loved Possession, but nothing else has particularly interested me. While this one sounds interesting, it doesn’t suit my mood just yet. Do you think it’s got a shot for a longlisting? If so, I’ll read it in the fall.


  10. Rob Says:

    I am very curious about this book, Kevin, but now worried: I’ve not enjoyed so many books lately, that I’m not anxious to add to that list too quickly. Hmm…


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rhys: I have every intention of continuing to reread her previous work. I think in her tetrology, starting with Still Life she made some very perceptive observations about the way that English society changed during the last half of the last century. What put me off with this book (and I do recognize others will have a different reaction) was that she became so fascinated with a historical story that she lost me as a reader. She can certainly write — sometimes, however, the result is not that interesting.
    Trevor: I wouldn’t be surprised to see it longlisted for the Booker. Juries almost always include a longish historical novel. I won’t be rereading it if they do — and I think you should wait until you are in the mood before trying it. It did occur to me while reading it that it might be the kind of book Mrs. Berrett would like, if she is up to 600+ page novels. The motherhood angle is not one that I could identify with — I think for those who do like this book it is probably very important.
    Rob: I can’t offer any advice beyond the review. My hunch is you would not like this one that much.


  12. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m reading the excerpt and wondering at the number of times the word “blue” appears in one sentence. I’ve got a proof copy I picked up from a charity shop and will leave it on the shelf until the Booker list comes out – if on the longlist, I’ll try to read the book, but such a lengthy tome would have to grab me straight away. I have not read another Byatt so I have no preconceived notions. I do have a lovely Folio Society copy of Possession on the shelf…


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Since I know a little bit about your taste, I think waiting on this one is a good idea — although you may want to check out dgr’s review when she has finished reading it, since she really likes the book. And settling in with a well-produced, hardcover version of Possession would be far preferable for my tastes.


    • Colette Jones Says:

      Well, I waited, and you are SO right! I can’t believe you are planning to read it again if it is shorlisted. I hope for your sake it is not. I managed 100-ish pages and gave up.


  14. Candy Schultz Says:

    I fit both those last categories also and I heaved a sigh of relief as I am waiting for the book to arrive. I love Byatt. I will be very disappointed with her if I don’t like this book.

    Good review.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Candy: I think if you fit both those categories — and like Byatt’s previous work — you will have a much different reaction to this book than I did. Kevin


  16. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    “It did occur to me while reading it that it might be the kind of book Mrs. Berrett would like, if she is up to 600+ page novels.”

    If I’m up to? What exactly are you implying, Kevin?
    Actually after DGR’s review I was sold. Trevor gifted me a children’s lit. course for Mother’s Day so I’ve been more regimented in my reading, but I’m thinking this could fit in the class so maybe I’ll sneak it in.
    Also, I still have interest in Olive Kitteridge, but I’m not sure getting to it at this point makes my comments particularly relevant. I tried, but Trevor was unable to let me read the book first. You’ll have to be more forceful with your requests.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B. — I meant no hidden implication — I’m pretty sure a mother of two young ones, who also keeps up to date on children’s literature, might find the investment of time in a 615-page novel an onerous challenge. Definitely no hidden agenda was intended.

    As for Olive Kitteridge you may recall that Trevor noticed a one-week delay in online ordering and so headed out and bought the book at a store. I had the same quote from Chapters online, ordered it and have had two messages since saying “sorry, we’ll let you know when it is available.” So I still have no copy and suspect others are in the same situation — which means comments are still very relevant. I have every intention of reviewing it if it ever does arrive.


  18. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    Alright, Kevin. I’ve made a vacation date with Olive Kitteridge. If you ever are able to review it and I have anything worth saying, I’ll contribute to your blog. I feel Trevor’s selfish behavior with the book warrants a bit of a freeze out.


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will let you know if and when it arrives, Mrs. B. I can’t believe the publishers are having this much trouble getting a new printing out — seems to me this is a book you would want to have ready for the summer trade.


  20. Jonathan Birch Says:

    Personally I love it when bloggers let rip on a book they hated.

    The truth that the publishing business wants to hide is that most novels that get published really aren’t worth reading, given the time it takes to read one. And my view is that books over 500 pages need to be especially good to be worth reading, as they inevitably displace two or three shorter books from my reading list.

    So I applaud your honesty on this one.


  21. The Booker Prize Longlist 2009 Says:

    […] KevinfromCanada, however, takes the opposite view: “I will continue to reread her earlier work with interest, but for me her oeuvre is now finish… […]


  22. Allrevedup Says:

    So now I’m checking back for your view on other Booker longlist novels and I have to say I’m with you on this one. I was excited to read it because a) it’s ASB and b) I’ve actually read quite a bit on the Arts and Crafts movement and early socialism etc. I felt that she used what was known about various real people as a model for her story without adding any illumination or insight into their situations, for instance the incest storyline didn’t give me a sense of why or how really the victims had been affected. So although it was crammed full of material detail, this wasn’t used to illuminate character, the huge cast seemed somehow underwritten to me. By the end of it I was reminded of the Cazelet novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard which I greatly enjoyed as a relaxing read which did not insult the intelligence but I hope EJH will not feel slighted when I say I expected more from ASB- I don’t think this would stop me reading anything else she writes but it would probably make me resist the hardback.


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    An interesting observation that the book did not add much to what you already know about the Arts and Crafts movement (which I know little about) — I felt the same thing about the Fabians (which I do know something about).

    One of the problems with reading Byatt in paperback is that her books are so long that you find youself fighting the physical volume — an argument for keeping an eye out for hardbacks in second hand stores. If you haven’t read it yet, I do recommend her tetralogy — Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and The Whistling Woman. It gets a bit weird in the last two books, but does offer some genuine insights on life in Great Britain in the last decades of the twentieth century.


  24. Allrevedup Says:

    Don’t worry, I’m generally a Byatt fan so I have read the tetralogy which defintely had some fine moments and made me think about the intellectual climate in the deacades when I was too young to do anything except pass exams.


  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree with you completely on the tetralogy — since I am 61 and it mirros much of my life I too found that it offered some insights on things that I had experienced but didn’t really understand. Updike’s Rabbit novels represent a similar project from a U.S. point of view. I found Byatt’s much more interesting, which of course then started me thinking about how maybe Canadians are more influenced by Britains that Americans in some things after all.


  26. Mary Says:

    The undoubted richness of the prose didn’t alter the fact that there were far too many characters and too many fizzled out narrative byways for me. The first world war hovered like the inevitable bludgeon and though I feel a little uncomfortable saying this, I felt the horror of the trenches and the utter waste of life provided a rather too neat ending with its mass culling of major and minor characters. In the end my main problem was that I didn’t care about the major characters as they were too thinly sketched ( and the minor ones were dead on the page). No amount of luscious description or fascinating social backfill could make up for this. Middlemarch it ain’t.


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Mary. I agree with your evaluation completely. For the first third of the book, I thought there were a few characters who could well become interesting. By the two-thirds point, I knew that that was not goiong to happen — and was rather annoyed. The last third, as you point out, seemed to merely play out the inevitable.


  28. M.J.Bailley Says:

    I have been reading/enjoying her books for many years,and ,in truth,am enjoying this one.My complaint?tho’ I fully understand need for historical context I am so tired of having every book of fiction push,not even subtly,this administrations marxist/socialist agenda-her timing is impeccable!! also,she does have to place a wee bit of anti Catholicism in all her books..I love her writing,but I do not buy her books-I go to library..I am a Catholic,and not a Socialist;it is astonishing how many books today are anti-Catholic,and pro-marxist


  29. Susan Says:

    I’m reading Byatt’s book and have a hard time putting it down. About the historical” background, the movements, those figures of literature, art and design–what richness–the descriptions, so many, are radiant with color and detail. Think perhaps of Henry James or Jane Austin. This novel is a wonderment.


  30. leyla Says:

    Kevin, I’ve been feeling intermittently guilty because I wrote a fairly lacerating review of The Children’s Book in my blog:

    I feel better having read your review because I know I’m not the only person who didn’t enjoy it, although I already knew anecdotally that some of my friends reading the Man Booker long and shortlists didn’t like it either.

    It sounds as if you rated Byatt before this – I’m afraid I struggled with Possession back when it won the Booker. I recognise that Byatt is an intelligent and artuculate writer, it’s just that I seem to hit a block with her work.

    The things I found most infuriating about The Children’s Book were:
    1 – History is explored not through character’s lives and experiences so much as thorugh lectures delivered by Byatt – often dry and lengthy ones.
    2 I don’t gel with the omniscient narrator who knows everything about all characters and fills us in, eg telling us Ada was the cook, or letting us know what a landscape looked like in the previous season when the observer of the landscape wasn’t there last season,
    3 – The enchanting fairytales written by Olive failed to enchant me. I know they are appropriate for the era but I felt they missed the magical element that, say, Lewis Carroll’s children’s books had. It would be asking too much to expect a book about a children’s author to include excellent children’s stories, but in that case why did Byatt include all the tales by Olive? I found them tedious and turgid.

    If you have time, have a look at my review and leave a comment. I’d appreciate recommendations of the Byatt books you’ve loved, though I have to say she’s pretty low down on my list of writers to revisit now.


  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I very much liked Possession. And I also quite liked her tetralogy — The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman — because I think it provides a very good study of Great Britain during the last half of the twentieth century. I am less keen on her shorter works. And I certainly found this one a struggle — I didn’t engage with either the history or the characters (whenever I found one interesting, Byatt seemed to abandon him or her for 100 pages or so). She used to be one of my favorite authors but sometimes authors head off in a different direction and I lose interest (Margaret Atwood and John Irving would be two other examples).


  32. Rick P Says:

    This comment is not about The Children’s Book but since you mentioned John Irving, I wanted to comment on that. I just finished Last Night In Twisted River. I had avoided his two previous books because a few people I respect had panned them so badly.

    I have been a big Irving fan based on Garp, Owen Meany and Cider House. I also quite liked Son of the Circus.

    I enjoyed Twisted River though it’s not quite up to the Big 3 for me. Great plot and craftsmanship. His Irvingisms like bears, loss of a child, wrestling, Exter Academy and seemingly inconsequential details being important to a later big event were a tad annoying.

    He takes some very explicit swipes at the George W. Bush administration.

    Overall, I enjoyed it though I recommend it with some reservations.


  33. Colette Jones Says:

    I will be reading Irving’s latest very soon. I enjoyed the last one (“Until I Find You”) despite others’ criticism. I would agree it’s not in the big three though (I think I’d have a big four and add Hotel New Hampshire). I couldn’t get on with “Son of the Circus” when it came out but I think I need to try it again.


  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I also was in the minority that liked Until I Find You, partly because a lot of it was set in the Toronto neighborhood where we lived (Irving’s Toronto residence was literally in the next block). And I too would include Hotel New Hampshire in a “big four”. So far reviews of the new book haven’t convinced me that it would be worthwhile (Rick’s comments are perhaps the most positive I’ve seen) so if you like it Colette, that would be a major factor. I did wait for more than a year before I read Until I Found You — sometimes waiting for the right mood with authors I’m less than keen on works wonders.


  35. Rick P Says:

    As mentioned, my Twisted River recommendation is with a bit of reservation. I liked Hotel New Hampshire and it’s been a long, long time since I read it. Perhaps the mistake I made was that I saw the movie before I read the book which is often not a good idea. I own Until I Find You so based on your comments I may get to it sooner than I would have.


  36. Tapernoux Pauline Says:

    je viens de finir “The Children’s Book” – j’ai tant aimé, comme tous les livres d’ASB, (lu et relu “Possession” et le quartette), vous ne savez pas la chance que vous avez, essayer donc de lire des romans contemporains français (le Goncourt par exemple – François Weyergans, léger, faible, aussitôt lu aussitôt oublié) – non vraiment vive(nt?) les romancières britanniques.
    Vivant, instructif, drôle, et triste, je suis fan, j’adôôôre, comme on dit sur France-Culture.


  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tapernoux Pauline: My French is (almost) enough to understand your comment, not nearly good enough to reply in the same language. And also not good enough to read French novels in the original, although I do love some contemporary ones in translation — Echenoz is a particular favorite and some aspects of Barbery. I also quite like Nancy Huston’s work.


  38. Crake Says:

    I finished The Children’s Book (a courtesy of KfC’s Impac contest) yesterday and I have to place myself in the ‘loved it’ camp. I found the plot highly absorbing as I followed the different storylines and the intricacies of familial relationships. Byatt is a tremendous fountain of creativity. Thank you so much for this book, Kevin. It’s definitely one of my best reads of the year so far.


  39. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am glad you liked it Crake — I think you are quite right that readers break into two camps on this one.


  40. RickP Says:

    I’m finally getting to this one after a couple of years. This is my first Byatt although I own Possession and will read it in the next year.

    I’m half way through this book and I’m finding it a great deal of work. At times, I do enjoy it in the moment. I do think the prose is strong. I agree with the comments on the number of broken story lines. I find myself making excuses to do something else rather than read this. I feel like I’ve been reading it forever.

    I’ve taken to reading a short story from “The Stories of John Cheever” in between my reading sessions of “The Children’s Book”. I highly recommend the Cheever collection. I find it extraordinarily engaging and surprising. His stories have quite an edge. Franzen’s dysfunctional family tales are definitely reminiscent of Cheever.

    Back to Byatt. I’ll post again if the second half of the book changes my opinion. I don’t find it painful. I just find it to be a mildly unpleasant experience.


  41. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: My reaction was very similar to yours (and I say again that I loved Possession). There is no doubt that Byatt can write but I found the many story lines so daunting that I too went looking for reasons not to return to the book. Those who liked it were able to engage in them — I just wished that she had been more selective.


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