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Sunday 17 February 2019

Review - A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book

A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book
A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book (4*)

The Children’s Book traces the lives of an enormous cast of characters through the years from 1895 to 1919. Most belong to families of socio-political visionaries: Fabians, Quakers, socialists, anarchists, artists, writers and free-thinkers, living in cottages around the Kentish Weald and North and South Downs. The children grow up and enter into relationships, the adults have muddled secrets which are gradually revealed. Then along comes the brutal cull of the First World War.

Byatt’s descriptions of artworks such as the Gloucester Candlestick are lavish as ever. Her portrayal of the 1900 Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris is exquisite. Pottery, puppetry and fairy stories form central elements of the story, and time and time again we are given lovingly detailed accounts, such as descriptions of shapes and glazes, and how they change when you hold and feel, rather than simply look:
The glaze was silver-gold, with veilings of aquamarine. The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, waterweeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular clouds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely, to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails. The jar had several asymmetric handles which seemed to grow out of it like roots in water, but turned out to have the sly faces and flickering tails of water-snakes, green-spotted gold. It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts. (p23)
The overwhelming, almost clinical detail is the problem. The book reads in places like a social, cultural and political history of the period. There are so many characters (Wikipedia lists 44 fictional characters plus 10 historical who play some part in the novel) it is difficult to keep track of who’s who. You do begin to feel you know most of them before the end of the 615 pages, but I wished I had printed out a list for reference before starting. 

Like Possession, it needs a second reading. On just one, it was not as satisfying. I know I’ll be back, but can’t face another month with it just yet.  

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

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