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the complete review - fiction
The Children's Book
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B+ : too many threads (and characters), but compelling
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally positive -- but while many are impressed also note that her attention to details and facts can be overwhelming
From the Reviews:
- "Readers will also be allowed to think, as they sink comfortably into Byatt’s gorgeously stuffed narrative. (And at almost 700 pages, you can get really comfy.) I haven’t had as much pure fun with one of her novels since her Booker-winning Possession. The Edwardian age agrees with her every bit as much as did the Victorian. The Children’s Book manages to be encompassing in scope and watch-maker precise in detail." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "Her new novel, The Children’s Book, is the book Byatt wanted Harry Potter to be. (...) It’s the sort of high-concept rarefied intellectual fiction we’d expect from, well, AS Byatt. Possession: the next generation. This time around, though, Byatt’s writing is propelled by a new vexation -- the current fad for young adult fantasy." - Sophie Gee, Financial Times
- "Indeed, the writing style is one of the book's biggest mysteries. There are no intellectual flourishes, no flashes of genius wordsmithery, no dazzling riffs. At first sight, each sentence is as nothing: clear, like water, simple, without any craft or elegance. The words just are: baldly stated, sometimes a little repetitive, straightforward, no sparkling fizz. Yet by a slow process of accretion, the writing takes on the majesty of a glacier: monumental, pure, beautiful. (...) The Children's Book turned out to be an intelligent, erudite and charming companion." - J.C. Sutcliffe, Globe and Mail
- "It will probably never be said of Byatt's writing that she wears her learning lightly, and her lengthy disquisitions on the building blocks of her narrative both support and bloat the novel; her briskly delivered but expansive accounts of, among other things, the development of London's museums, of late Victorian banking crises, of pottery and puppetry and of the Arts and Crafts, Fabian and suffrage movements are never less than informative but sometimes a little less than compelling. (...) But Byatt is brilliant on the gathering forces of England and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, their contrasting attitudes towards the part that the land plays in the collective unconscious, their differing forms of nostalgia." - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "This is very much a novel about the importance of paying attention -- not only to the grand architecture of the buildings in which we live, but crucially to the edifices of our relationships and the construction of our own thought processes." - Anita Sethi, Independent on Sunday
- "Byatt's technique is to allow each individual or group a brief limelight and then to move on, picking up their story maybe many pages later. This makes for an exciting pace and rhythm. The downside is that important plotlines and events can lose impact. (...) The human stories are gripping and often deeply affecting, but they become submerged beneath a tidal wave of happenings and commentary. Prodigious as it is, the effect, like A S Byatt's descriptions of the Paris Exposition, is to glut the reader with a superfluity of wonders." - Pamela Norris, Literary Review
- "The Children’s Book is a fanatically detailed re-creation of the years between 1895 and 1919. (...) An extraordinary, and wearisome, amount of attention is given to pots and glazes, to designs painted or printed on pots, on theatre sets, on dresses, on buildings, books and so on. The central mode of description is the ekphrasis; almost every page supports some static description of an already extant representation. Always static but always fervent: the novel quivers in aspic. (...) Characters are similarly described -- the life is glazed out of them." - James Wood, London Review of Books
- "For all its factual richness, I doubt whether Byatt found it necessary to do much research for this novel: she is a highly informed person in many fields. To that extent, it is a book of useful knowledge, as well as being a seductive tale; an improving book, in a word. (...) "Stolid" is a favoured adjective in a book whose own four-squareness will be widely seen as a quality. Other than that, it is hard to know what to say. There are books one feels shabby about criticising at all in our hyper-democratic age" - George Walden, New Statesman
- "It's worth noting that love wins all over the place in this novel. (...) The book would sag under its own weight if it were not supported by five set-piece episodes, each described in luxuriant detail. (...) Each of these occasions not only lets Byatt mark a moment in changing lives and relationships, but simultaneously registers the culture of this confident and optimistic age." - Neal Ascherson, The New York Review of Books
- "While Byatt’s engagement with the period’s overlapping circles of artists and reformers is serious and deep, so much is stuffed into The Children’s Book that it can be hard to see the magic forest for all the historical lumber -- let alone the light at the end of the narrative tunnel. The action is sometimes cut off at awkward moments by ponderous newsreel-style voice-over or potted lectures in cultural history. Startling revelations are dropped in almost nonchalantly and not picked up again until dozens or even hundreds of pages later. Byatt’s coda on the Great War, dispatched in scarcely more pages than the Exposition Universelle, is devastating in its restraint. But too often readers may feel as if they’re marooned in the back galleries of a museum with a frighteningly energetic docent." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review
- "At times, an excess of detail threatens to overwhelm the plot: no aquamarine glaze goes undescribed, no psychological process unmentioned. But, despite risking tedium, the book is ultimately engaging and rewarding." - The New Yorker
- "Tom's story is a kind of tragic fairy tale, and Byatt does fairy tales wonderfully. But she is ambivalent about the Wellwoods' preoccupation with them -- and we would do well to understand why." - Louisa Thomas, Newsweek
- "A teacherly element is undoubtedly part of Byatt's literary personality and gradually it becomes dominant in The Children's Book. There is a potentially fatal unwillingness to trust the reader to get the point or the full range of reference. (...) It contains magnificent things, but readers are entitled to feel short-changed when a family drama slowly turns into a history lesson." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "What you see here, as you do throughout the novel, is the strength and fire of Byatt's imagination as she hurls herself into another time. Whether she is summoning up the mud and blood of Flanders fields, the dissecting room at a fledgling medical school for women, the brutality of life at a school for privileged young boys -- and countless other places, such are the protean splendors of this novel -- her touch is sure. (...) The Children's Book is truly a novel of ideas, as one might expect from Byatt. In its enormous range and depth, it resembles those great Victorian novels in which the author is clearly steeped. Her learning is matched by an imaginative capacity to transmogrify what she has studied into something truly felt." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "The Children’s Book is compulsively readable. (...) Every character in this extraordinarily rich book is superbly embedded in the thoughts and beliefs and feelings of the period -- and indeed in its interior decor. (...) At times, the impulse toward comprehensiveness does lack balance." - Caroline Moore, The Spectator
- "Easily the best thing AS Byatt has written since her Booker-winning masterpiece, Possession (1990), it shares strong affinities with it. (...) As a backdrop to events in the novel, Byatt unrolls crisp summaries of political and social developments against which her characters’ activities and ambitions are silhouetted. Intellectual zest keeps the book sizzling with ideas. But it is alive with imaginative energy, too. High among the qualities giving the book aesthetic appeal is its author’s responsiveness to the art and artefacts of the era she is chronicling. (...) Brilliantly following the trajectory that brought a civilisation and a generation to this catastrophe, The Children’s Book is a work that superlatively displays both enormous reach and tremendous grip." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "A central question of Byatt’s narrative is the extent to which the act of creativity is destructive: the creator a predator on the lives of others. (...) The Children’s Book is a richly allusive text. (...) The narrative vigour and passionate engagement with the human condition that has always informed Byatt’s writing ensures that one can approach The Children’s Book in perfect ignorance of Nesbit, Gill or any of the social, political and artistic convulsions of the Edwardian era and still miss nothing of its astonishing power and resonance." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph
- "For all of its more than 600 pages it is rarely less than totally absorbing -- and often very moving. (...) The reason the reader stays with Byatt through some of the novel’s more languid interludes is that she has succeeded in creating a vivid soap opera of sorts out of the lives of close to 20 children." - Lorna Bradbury, The Telegraph
- "It's not quite that good -- it has Possession's omnivorous range but not its propulsive discipline. Still, The Children's Book is a rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act. (...) But there is a payoff for sticking with all of them. But there is a payoff for sticking with all of them." - Rhadika Jones, Time
- "This is a long, packed novel, deliberately discursive and crammed to the gills with knowledge about subjects as diverse as the foundation of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the firing of a kiln, the requirements of an MB degree in 1903 or the content of the Grande Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. Byatt can seem almost floridly informative, but there is a backbone of purpose in it. She anatomises the era's conscious, willed dedication to the idea of progress, while never slighting its real achievements. (...) The panoramic quality of The Children's Book is achieved at some cost to brilliance of characterisation and narrative drive. Its success is as a novel of ideas, forcefully and often memorably expressed, while the story follows darkening fortunes into a chastened postwar world." - Helen Dunmore, The Times
- "If the bestselling Possession (1990) was Byatt’s critique of the Golden Age of high Victorianism, then The Children’s Book, in spite of arriving nearly two decades later, follows from it organically: it is a complementary dissection of the cultural myths, peculiarities and obsessions of the Silver Age that followed. (...) As with the fairy tales, so with the furnishings. At times the painstaking focus on pattern and decor, on the detail of period fabrics and china, has an almost incantatory repetitiveness. (...) Stories are dangerous things. And Byatt knows that history, too, is simply a story written on a larger scale." - Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement
- "This is not a quick read at almost 700 pages. Byatt rewards such effort, however, by serving a literary feast, telling the story not only of these characters but of their world, one brimming with talk of anarchy and women's suffrage. (...) Byatt fills a huge canvas with the political and social changes that swept the world in those years, and the devastation of war that swept its families. She elicits great compassion for the individual beings caught in that tableau. It's not a tale you'll soon forget." - Susan Kelly, USA Today
- "The events of The Children's Book might be said to mirror the ways in which all parents, of every generation, deceive and betray their children; but Ms. Byatt seems to find a special culpability in the Edwardian era" - Brooke Allen, Wall Street Journal
- "But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. (...) Through these complex personal tales, Byatt shows the aesthetics of the age, which, in response to the tremendous changes wrought by the rise of industrialism, emphasized the work of individual craftsmen. The Children's Book holds a mirror to the new middle class during an era of growing appreciation for children and greater sexual freedom for women and for the love that dares not speak its name. That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy." - Keith Donohue, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Set -- save a few foreign excursions -- in England, The Children's Book begins in 1895 and follows its (many) characters through to the end of World War I (though some periods -- and most of the latter years -- flow by all in a rush).
The Wellwoods are more or less at the (loose) center of things: Olive is a writer of children's stories, while her husband worked successfully in banking; when he gives that up, Olive becomes the family's main breadwinner.
"The Wellwoods appeared to be one of these open and pleasantly complicated families", Byatt writes, but they are more complicated than the surface suggests, and it's not all pleasant.
The era was one of increasing openness, and a movement towards greater rights for women.
While Olive is, in some respects, an old-fashioned maternal figure with a large brood to watch over, she is also a modern woman, responsible for the welfare of the family, including, unusually, their financial welfare.
Throughout the book her daughters (and other girls) struggle with the opportunities -- and lack thereof -- for women, and the difficult decisions of what to make of their lives.
One is determined to become a doctor -- a surgeon, no less -- while another embraces the cause of women's rights particularly strongly.
Sex turns out to be quite a problem too: there are several illegitimate (and haphazardly legitimized) births.
For the young women, unwanted pregnancies completely upend their lives.
But the more obvious mistakes of the young can't compare to the secrets of the older generation: the marriage of Olive and her husband, for example, is a particularly open one -- and the secrecy muddles everything up, as one child notes, suddenly having to live with the realization that: "I am not who I thought I was".
The search for identity thus becomes not just one for a future -- the person one hopes to become, a career to aspire to -- but of the past, and origins.
More than one child is undone by it.
(Identity itself is so difficult to fix that one character, wrestling with the one he wants to assume, is referred to almost throughout as 'Charles/Karl', unable to decisively become the one or the other.)
Another parental pair is that of the temperamental genius potter Benedict Fludd and his wife, Seraphita, who seems in a constant drugged daze.
Fludd is a genius, but there is also a hidden depravity to him; one daughter escapes it, but it weighs on the entire family.
Most of the marriages that occur along the way are marriages of some convenience: love plays a role, but the formal act largely serves a different purpose.
Meanwhile, those that are already married at the outset, including the elder Wellwoods and Fludds, don't seem to take the institution all that seriously .....
Many of the characters in The Children's Book are trying to figure out what to devote their lives to.
Olive is a writer, but it is sometimes more duty than pleasure.
For one of Fludd's daughters art offers an escape from a life that crushes her.
Fludd himself is a true artistic genius, but one whose demons prevent him from reaching his complete potential.
Only Philip Warren, found as a teenager living in what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a natural artist who knows what he is after and single-mindedly pursues it.
(Dorothy, the Wellwood-daughter who wants to become a doctor, is similarly single-minded; few of the others have much academic interest or success.)
With World War I looming ahead, and populated by children growing into (nominal) adulthood, it's not surprising that The Children's Book is full of loss of innocence.
When Olive reveals to her sister, Violet, that she has seen something disturbing Violet responds:
That was stupid of you.
Better not to see.
But turning a blind eye to everything is no longer possible; as is, enough -- or rather: too much -- is overlooked or not seen clearly enough.
Byatt juggles an enormous cast of characters; their lives and fates do overlap, but the constantly shifting focus does diminish the overall power of the book -- as does the summing-up rush of the final section, where World War I conveniently does the dirty work of thinning out the cast.
Byatt is particularly good
at using the arts in her story, with characters ranging from the museum keeper to the potters, the writers to the puppet-master.
Olive, who writes both privately -- each of her children gets their own story -- and publicly (and who makes a mess of things when the cross-over goes too far) is particularly well-drawn as an artist -- as is her art.
The Children's Book is also very much a period piece in that Byatt tries to conjure up -- in great detail -- the time and its peculiarities.
She's especially good on period detail, and though some reviewers find she overdoes it, for the most part it hardly slows the narrative down at all; indeed, it feels perfectly integral.
There are too many stories jostling to be heard in The Children's Book -- it is, again, one of those books that either should have concentrated more closely on fewer characters, or been expanded into a much larger work.
While, for the most part, compelling, it doesn't offer the satisfaction of a fully formed and complete-in-itself work of fiction; it's more a scraggly heap.
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 November 2009
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The Children's Book:
Other books by A.S.Byatt under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Antonia Susan Byatt was born in 1936.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she is the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction.
She is the sister of author Margaret Drabble.
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© 2009-2012 the complete review
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