There are many reasons why it took me such an age to finish A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. The baby, the house move, the bits of work I’ve got on the go (incidentally here is the other piece of journalism I mentioned) … and one must take into account the book’s considerable size of over 600 pages.
But, truth be told, I’m afraid that it took so long because I didn’t especially enjoy it.
Usually I am all for giving up on a book that I’m not enjoying. Life’s too short and there are too many books to squander my precious reading hours on something for which, for whatever reason, I’m not in the mood. It’s not that I won’t ever get around to reading the book in question, more that the current moment might not be the right time to have a go. Perhaps this is never more important to remember than when weighing up a thick book. Chances are, one’s reading time is pretty fragmented – the odd snatch here and there to and from work, or an occasional treat for the bath. If it’s a thick book that isn’t grabbing you, then it’s going to not grab you for weeks, possibly months, and you might find you stop reading altogether.
I say all this, and yet I stuck with The Children’s Book. I wanted a long, immersive novel to get my teeth into, a richly imagined world which I could inhabit during the many ‘feed-reads’ which pepper my day, baby in one hand, book in the other. I wanted a world which my sleep-deprived brain might find sufficiently real to let me step into whenever I opened the cover, an exciting destination where I looked forward to arriving during these days where time has gone all wonky, a place I could tell Vita all about when I chat to her and she gurgles back. I wanted a good big book, and instead I got an average one. For the thing that was so annoying about The Children’s Book is that it wasn’t quite bad enough to put down.
It begins promisingly enough – two boys, Tom and Julian, discover a third, Philip Warren, hiding in the basement of the South Kensington museum (which is now the V&A). Philip turns out to be a talented artist and is taken off by Tom’s bohemian mother Olive and adopted into their lives. It could be the beginning of an adventure story in which we follow Philip or Tom or indeed Olive and see what happens next … but alas it’s not. We follow all of them and many many more. Byatt has a huge cast of characters – most with slightly daft names like Prosper, Griselda, Pomona, Geraint – and we leap around between them, spending just enough time with each to awaken our interest, but not enough to empathise fully.
Perhaps a large book demands a large cast of characters, but with all the great big books I’ve read, there’s been one character who has dominated, to whom we are encouraged to relate. Middlemarch has Dorothea, for instance, Bleak House has Esther, and Jane Eyre of course has Jane Eyre. With The Children’s Book Byatt flits from one to the other so that just when you’re beginning to get engrossed in, say, Philip’s storyline you have to leave him in favour of someone else. It’s a real tease! I kept on going because I quite wanted to know what happened to some of them, but it was so fragmented that I never derived much satisfaction in the finding out.
As if the abundance of characters isn’t enough, there’s also a huge wealth of historical detail. It feels as though Byatt has taken pains to let every single fragment of research get its place and wants us to take note of the months she must have spent in the archives. Each scene is so painstakingly described, especially if it contains a work of art or five, that you can’t see the wood for the trees. My little nephew who is only eleven said to me the other day that he didn’t like it when writers describe things too much because then you can’t see it as clearly in your own imagination. I fear AS Byatt will not be the writer for him.
Gosh this is turning into one hell of a grumble. I could also whine about all the historical great people like Oscar Wilde, JM Barrie and HG Wells who pop up as gratuitous cameos, but I shall stop myself, because I hate grumbling too much about a book. I must remember that I stuck with The Children’s Book to the bitter end and there were moments that were good. For instance, when Herbert Methley (another writer) visits Olive and sees she is writing he says:
‘Do not let me disturb you, dear Mrs Wellwood. No one knows better than myself the horror – the vein-freezing unpleasantness – of having the flow of writing disrupted.’
It’s true, there’s nothing worse, and ‘vein-freezing’ is the perfect description when the flow of words feel like one’s actual life-blood. (Strange, though, that this should come in a book where, as I have grumbled, the flow of writing is endlessly disrupted.) There are extracts from Olive’s stories for her children – chilling and gripping fairy tales of a boy in search of his shadow, or a boy who joins the fairies, or a girl who peoples her dolls house with real little folk only to suffer the same fate herself at the hands of a giant. These stories were the best bits for me – I only wish there were more of them.
There is a good moment about the power of knowing one’s been lied to and a striking bit about a character who was so damaged from analysis that he now tries only to look at the surfaces of things:
‘I know I must live by staying on the surface. Like those flies that walk on water. Like a painted flower on a plate.’
Perhaps then, this is the ultimate book of surfaces. Its pages are littered with things and dates and facts and names. We look at the surfaces of all Byatt’s characters and see a pleasingly complicated pattern in the way they intermingle with each other and the greater picture of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s all very clever and neat in spite of the messiness of so many plot lines, but I never quite managed to dive beneath.
Apologies for the miserable post … on to something better!
Tags: A.S. Byatt