Saturday, 9 October 2010

A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

I bought this one as a hardback because I chose to do a critical analysis of how the book was received, you know, critically. I found myself, having not read the book, defending it against harsh criticism from James Wood at London Review of Books. However, nearly a year later, having found the time (and I don’t use that word lightly) to read the book, I also found myself agreeing with James Wood.

Reviews of The Children’s Book state that the novel consists of a combination of the life of the characters and Olive Wellwood’s children’s fiction. This is a gross over exaggeration. There were no more than 10 pages of Olive’s writing out of the 615 comprising the novel. And these pages aren’t the smallest either.

Many people think this book is about how the writing and social lives of Olive and Humphry affect their children, and why shouldn’t they? It states as much in the blurb. But at one point I was reading, and for a considerable amount of time, about mining and then about banking. Oh, and there’s loads of stuff about pottery and how to make pots, and how it was hard in the late eighteen hundreds.

What I’m trying to get at here is that, at some point, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction become quite thin, and that’s putting it mildly and being polite. If the novel was about the blurb it would be half the length and better for it.

Byatt has done her research and credit to her for going to such lengths but there is a point where the research becomes the novel. The story is drowned by the facts and the characters are strangled by each other (not literally).

There is one scene reasonably early where Byatt decides to introduce the entire cast of the novel in one scene. One scene in which I had no idea what was going on, but that might be down to the fact that I don’t know about the works of H.G. Wells. Or how to manipulate silver.

There were also a few little things throughout that irked me, granted, not as badly as they irked James Wood who managed an outstanding 3,000 words on the subject. Byatt makes the mistake of writing ‘though’ instead of ‘thought’ on more than two occasions. There is one sentence that reads, ‘He observed her observing his observations’ which pretty much sums up Byatt’s over-zealous need to inform the readers of exactly what’s going on.

Later, Byatt uses, and not for the first time, ‘at the time’ from a narrative stand-point, which removes the reader from the story. Most of these events don’t add anything to the story. About half way through, Byatt spends thirty pages talking about twentieth century art when none of the characters are artists (in the painting sense, anyway.) It’s basically the author going, ‘Look! Look at all this stuff I know about! Aren’t I clever! MEEE!!!’

Another unnecessary and repeated scene shows us one of the characters, Philip, masturbating. I mean, I understand that these characters are young and learning things but if you go to someone’s house after they rescue you from a museum basement, you probably shouldn’t wank into their clean handkerchiefs. And if you do, I certainly don’t want to know about it, especially when I’m supposed to be learning about pots and German history pre-World War I.

Oh, and for the record, why should I care if The Kaiser killed 84 out of 134 foxes on a fox hunt?

I would recommend this book to members of the literary community and those who enjoy dreamy, vivid, imaginative... no, that’s not it. Those who enjoy heavily researched, over-written prose. Maybe I'm being unfair or maybe I’m not smart enough to enjoy the book for what it is. But in the words of Ben Crowshaw, I’d rather be stupid and having fun than be bored out of my huge genius mind.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt was published by Chatto & Windus in 2009. RRP £18.99 (Hardback) £7.99 (Paperback)]

To read James Wood’s critique of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, visit:

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