Friday, 16 September 2011

Review - The Children's Book

As you may have heard, I am frantically trying to read half of the 1001 Books list before I turn 28. I had a cunning plan to steam through the list more quickly by reading the shortest books available to me.

Well, I got bored of that.

The Children's Book by A S Byatt may be part of the list, but it certainly is not short. At just over 600 pages it's beautifully chunky, and reading it reminded me that I really do like longer books. If it's done right, a big fat book gives you a satisfying sense of involvement in the world on offer, and you end up not only truly bothering about, but almost living alongside, the characters in it.

Last summer I read War and Peace (I enjoyed the Peace more than the War, and the beginning more than the end, and the whole thing an awful lot more than I thought I was going to), a Big Book if ever there was one. It took me almost a month, and I remember at one point feeling like I was just going to have to SET MYSELF ON FIRE if Nikolai didn't end up marrying Sonia. I'm still really bitter at Tolstoy about that one. But Tolstoy's dodgy romantic decisions aside, The Children's Book has that same sort of feeling about it - in it, Byatt has managed to create an English version of the big, all-engrossing, over-populated world of a Russian novel. Each one of the characters in The Children's Book - and there are many - have their own interesting, odd concerns and their own way of getting through life, and they're all a pleasure to spend time with.

I was put off reading this book for quite a while because my mother told me she hadn't really enjoyed it. the moral of this story is that I really need to learn to stop listening to my mother when she tells me she didn't like a book. Or rather, I need to remember to enquire whether or not the reason why she didn't like it had anything to do with the presence of myths, fairy tales, unrealistic creatures and/or any other fantasy elements, because my mother is a sensible woman with a generally very good taste in books, but things that are not real make her deeply nervous.

We don't really see eye to eye about this. In fact, I spent most of my childhood presenting her with fat bundles of paper and announcing, "I WROTE YOU A STORY! It's about this GIRL and she FALLS THROUGH A PORTAL INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE and discovers an EVIL PLOT in a RUINED CASTLE and then she gets chased by VAMPIRE PRIESTS and they're just about to SHOOT HER IN THE FACE but she turns into a WERE-CAT so everything is all right in the end. Also there's a talking bear." It is to my mother's everlasting credit that she dutifully read every one of these stories and told me how lovely they were.

Anyway, I really do like fantasy in my literature, and (as always in these cases) the exact things that made my mother doubtful about The Children's Book made me completely fall in love with it. The Children's Book turns out to be all about the late-Victorian preoccupation with myth and fairy tale - the central character, Olive Wellwood, is an exceedingly E. Nesbit-y children's novelist who writes about little things hiding underground and people with animal heads and evil fairies at the bottom of the garden. I grew up with E. Nesbit's stories, although I was always a bit suspicious of them - I could never work out if they were meant to be twee or nasty - and it's obvious that Byatt did too, and felt the same way. Olive's stories are weird expressions of all the strange things lurking in the Victorian unconscious (my favourite), equal parts cute and horrible and of course, because this is A S Byatt, pitch-perfect reproductions of her chosen genre.

I deeply approve of the way A S Byatt has spent time thinking about fairy tales, and how they manage to affect the way people think about themselves, and even live their lives, no matter how grown-up and anchored in reality they think they are. Myths matter, to both individuals and countries, and that's what The Children's Book explores in a very interesting and non-intrusive way. At times it reads like a very nice political and cultural history lesson, but a history lesson told like a fairy tale ("And then the Fabians were born, and they were nice but hopeless, and they argued with the Imperialists and the Tories who meant well but were flawed"). I wish my highbrow cultural history books were like this, because then I might understand what they were getting at.

When it's not about stories, The Children's Book is about art, and particularly pots, which is something else that pleases me very much. My mother, when she wasn't reading my awful fantasy stories, was an art historian, and so I spent a lot of my childhood in various museums. I love it, therefore, when a writer takes the time to really look at and describe beautiful things.

And god, can A S Byatt describe beautiful things. She has a famously dirty literary feud going on with her sister Margaret Drabble (apparently they won't even appear at the same literary festival, so you have to pick one or the other), and after The Children's Book I sort of feel like I understand it from Margaret Drabble's point of view. If your sister was A S Byatt, wouldn't you want to just rip her head off out of sheer jealous spite? I know I would. I still sort of do and I'm not even related to her. How dare Byatt be able to use words like that? How can she be able to describe a pot so well that you want to reach out and touch it, and then on the same page write about a landscape so you feel like you've been there? That cow! She has too much talent and I want some of it.

This, for example, is Byatt's description of the first vase aspiring potter Philip sees when he arrives at the Wellwoods' house:
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.... It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts.
That's colour, movement, music, landscape, language and biological detail, all visually observed like she's making a scientific discovery, and it's all about a pot.

But Byatt isn't all delicate intricate descriptions. The Children's Book sweeps about, through  five different (but interlocking) families and several decades, which include some very unpleasant historical moments. When I reviewed Ragnarok I said that Byatt seems to enjoy writing about nastiness as much as she does beauty, and you can see the same thing in The Children's Book - it's Grimm's toothy, gory fairytales that she's most influenced by here, and when we get to World War I at the end, characters get shot in the face and drowned in the mud with gleeful abandon. You care about Byatt's characters, and you can tell that she does too, but she isn't afraid of bumping them off, and I think that's a mark of a really good writer.

And, in case you couldn't tell, I think that A S Byatt is a really good writer. She's clever, she's bold, she's beautiful and (most importantly) she's a pleasure to read. She doesn't rub how ridiculously smart she is in your face (which is not to say that you don't realise it. But at least she's not being rude about it). Ah, I loved this. And when I finished it I hit 17.78% completion of the 2010 list.

I've still got a way to go.

4.5 stars.

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