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The Children's Book Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 6, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Byatt's overstuffed latest wanders from Victorian 1895 through the end of WWI, alighting on subjects as diverse as puppetry, socialism, women's suffrage and the Boer War, and suffers from an unaccountably large cast. The narrative centers on two deeply troubled families of the British artistic intelligentsia: the Fludds and the Wellwoods. Olive Wellwood, the matriarch, is an author of children's books, and their darkness hints at hidden family miseries. The Fludds' secrets are never completely exposed, but the suicidal fits of the father, a celebrated potter, and the disengaged sadness of the mother and children add up to a chilling family history. Byatt's interest in these artists lies with the pain their work indirectly causes their loved ones and the darkness their creations conceal and reveal. The other strongest thread in the story is sex; though the characters' social consciences tend toward the progressive, each of the characters' liaisons are damaging, turning high-minded talk into sinister predation. The novel's moments of magic and humanity, malignant as they may be, are too often interrupted by information dumps that show off Byatt's extensive research. Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel. (Oct.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Gorgeously stuffed? Or overstuffed? Critics were clearly split on Byatt's latest offering. Several enthusiastically praised The Children's Book as a stunning literary achievement, a thinking person's novel, and the most noteworthy of Byatt's books since Possession was published almost 20 years ago. Others argued that, while Byatt is adept at richly evoking the Edwardian era, the book stumbles under the weight of its own excess. Too many characters, too many scandalous events, too many puppet shows, and too many passages on social history caused the exhausted critic from the Houston Chronicle to state: "Even the dirty parts ... seem to drag." Overall, however, The Children's Book is a worthy novel for dedicated Byatt fans who like their tomes dense, descriptive, and multilayered.
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Ultimately, I didn't think the end justified to read.
If you like Byatt you will enjoy this - if you don't, or don't enjoy long, detailed historical novels, you may not.
More is given to the reader in this book than even usual for Byatt; I think I enjoyed this about as much as any of her novels. She employs an appropriately childlike syntactical style where she rarely varies from simple subject-predicate constructions; initially I found this a bit off-putting, but it is so appropriate to her themes (and to the enormous amount of character juggling and description in the work) that I became quickly used to it. Even more surprising might be the fact that Byatt doesn't use traditional plotting to keep her reader engaged; there's no big payoff you're waiting for other than (as with most family sagas) just the simple passing of time to see what happens to the characters. As is again fitting with her themes, Byatt allows the book to dribble off with the horrible losses incurred by the First World War, which dampers the hopes and promises of the early modern movements; perhaps there was no other way this novel could end, but it was disappointing to find the finales of some of the characters' stories left unexplained by the end. But this is a big and major novel. I think anyone interested in European fin-de-siecle or modernist culture would find much here to savor. It will be worth re-reading again in years to come.
The Children's Book is a book somewhere between story and history. The book centers around the Wellwood family and their many children, their adult siblings (and their children) and friends and acquaintances (and their children). Nearly all the characters are introduced rather breathlessly at a midsummer's party, and within a few chapters I found I needed to start diagramming the relationships to keep everyone straight. (That diagram served as a very handy bookmark!) It is a hefty book, so you have plenty of time to get to know everyone, and by the end you don't have trouble remembering who is who, but it is a little overwhelming at the beginning.
The book moves back and forth between a more typical novel format (characters interacting with each other and moving the plot forward that way) and the narrator's observations of the characters exploring various political and artistic movements of the times. There are also excepts from one of the character's writings (somewhat dark children's stories) sprinkled throughout the book, with certain parallels to the plotlines that unfold for the various Wellwood children. The book covers "only" 15-20 years, but when you realize that those years cover the late Victorian age, the beginning of the Edwardian age, and World War I, you realize why the book needed the heft it has. There was a LOT going on, particularly from the standpoint of England, both internally and in its foreign relations. The characters go through enormous transformation from that first idyllic midsummer's party, some of it sympathetic and some of it less so.
As a collector of art (and particularly art pottery) from this period, I found this book absolutely fascinating. The descriptions of pots and jewelry, and their makers, were engrossing for me, and putting them in the larger historical context was worth the read even apart from the rest of the narrative. If you are someone who wants to understand (or have explained) every single socio-political reference, and you are not very familiar with this period of history, this book could be very frustrating for you. I found I needed to suspend my "in depth" reading comprehension for certain pages, and just accept that I was looking at a vast canvas, with a lot of details that I couldn't fully appreciate, at least on the first visit.