Saturday, 24 March 2012

Book #28 The Children's Book by A.S Byatt

The Children's Book

I tried reading Possession by AS Byatt a few years ago, and despite it's glowing reputation, couldn't get on with it. I was attracted to this novel by its beautiful cover but put off by previous experience. Then I caught a glimpse of it over someone's shoulder on a plane, liked what I read and thought to give it a try.

I'm glad I did, I thought this book was great. It concerns the Wellwood family, who live at a large house named Todefright in the country, and their wide network of family and friends : The London Wellwoods, The Cains, The Fludds, The Sterns and many more.

Olive Wellwood is a children's writer and mother to seven children and two others that died in infancy. Though she has many children she favours oldest son Tom and does not conceal it. As she busies herself in her work, the children are largely reared by her spinster sister Violet, who thinks of herself as their true mother.

The novel has a wide cast of both fictional and historical characters and is set initially in the Victorian era and runs all the way through to World War I. What I simply loved about this novel is the way that political and social ideas at the time, events, current affairs and philosophy are reflected through the eyes and experiences of all the characters. It is a totally remarkable production in terms of sheer research and effort, it is like a mini degree in comparative fiction. At times, particularly towards the end, it spends too much time on the history and not enough on the characters but the amount of topics it covers is astonishing :

Socialism and Marxism
The impact of being the child of a children's author
Education, particularly of women, in contrast to the importance of marriage
The Fabian Society of which many characters  are members
Sexual abuse
The problems of being German in England in WWI
Artistry and artistic genius

and many more. It's fascinating. Not just the issues but the characters themselves. Dorothy and her difficult relationship with Olive, Olive's complex relationship with Tom, the psychology of Tom himself a child of nature deeply damaged by his experience at public school. The bizarre marriage of Olive and Humphrey with their ongoing trysts. The women of the Fludd family and their Havisham like existence. Elsie Warren and her brother Phillip. Herbert Methley. The characters are just great.

Towards the end their stories did begin to feel a little shoehorned - there is more to Hedda's story for example than the too short passages devoted to it, the same could be said for Robin Wellwood and Robin Oakshott. Though the book closes at 1918, some characters surviving and others not following the Great War; I really felt that if ever a book warranted a sequel it is this one and I really, really hope that Byatt writes one, so we can follow the lives our characters and their descendants through the historical events of the rest of the 20th Century.

I hugely recommend this book, I think it's my best of 2012 thus far. 10/10

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