The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
There is no way to read this book quickly, it is just too dense and rich. I want to read it again, right now, but have had to return it to my library as many people wish to read it. I will have to have my own copy.
Hiding in the basement of the half-built Victoria and Albert museum is a young ragamuffin so enthralled by the objects he sees in those great halls that he must draw them. This is Phillip. Two boys, Julian, who’s father works there, and his friend Tom, see this strange boy. There is a chase and Phillip is found out. He is brought before Julian’s father and Tom’s mother, Olive Wellwood, a famous childrens book author. So begins The Children’s Book.
This is a magnificent confection, a multi-tiered wedding cake of a novel. A.S. Byatt writes the densest, most tangled sentences I know of, and I love every one of them. Taking place at the turn of the Twentieth Century and covering the time through World War One, The Children’s Book is a saga involving multiple families with multiple children, all intertwined. There are different kinds of family dynamics, many kinds relationships and no way to write a synopsis of what happens. There is no simple plot line, no single character to love or hate. The story is a fabulous mingling of fairytales, summer parties, plays, puppets, pottery, politics, sex, the Paris Exposition of 1900, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Back to Nature movement, women’s suffrage, anarchists, socialists, aristocrats, education, labor and the European Royal families. There’s more, so much more that some reviewers just can’t make sense of this book.
Mostly, it’s a novel about the stories families tell each other and about memory, but, oh, there is really no simple way to describe it. Here’s some bits about family:
Everyone, old and young, now gathered for a kind of sumptuous picnic. As happens at such gatherings, where those whose lives are shaped, fortunately or unfortunately, are surrounded by those whose lives are almost entirely to come, the elders began asking the young what they meant to do with their lives, and to project futures for them. From page 56.
A family, and a human being inside a family, put together a picture of their past in voluntary and involuntary ways, carefully constructed, arbitrarily dictated. A mother remembers one particular summer gathering on a lawn, with iced lemonade in a jug, and everyone smiling — as she puts in the album the one photograph where everyone is smiling, and keeps the scowling faces of the unsuccessful snapshots hidden in a box. A child remembers one scramble over the Downs, or zigzag trot through the woods, one of many, many forgotten ones, and shapes his identity around it. “I remember when I saw the yaffle.” And the memory changes when he is twelve, and fourteen, and twenty, and forty, and eighty, and prehaps never at any of those points representing precisely anything that really happened. Odd things persist for inexplicable reasons. A pair of shoes that never quite fitted. A party dress in which a girl always felt awkward, though the photographs were pretty enough. One violent quarrel of many arising from the unjust division of a cake, or the desperately disappointing decision not to go to the seaside. There are things, also, that are memories as essential and structural as bones in toes and fingers. A red leather belt. A dark pantry full of obscene and lovely jars. From page 329.
And about puppetry and the theater:
An illusion is a complicated thing, and an audience is a complicated creature. Both need to be brought from flyaway parts to a smooth, composite whole. The world inside the box, a world made of silk, satin, china mouldings, wires, hinges, painted backcloths, moving lights and musical notes, must come alive with its own laws of movement, its own rules of story. And the watchers, wide-eyed and greedy, distracted and supercilious, preoccupied, uncomfortable, tense, must become one, as a shoal of fishes with huge eyes and flickering fins becomes one, wheeling this way and that in response to messages of hunger, fear or delight. August’s flute was heard, and some were ready to listen and some were not. The curtains opened on a child’s bedroom. He sat against his pillows. His nurse, in comfortable grey, bustled about him, and her shadow loomed over him on the white wall. From page 80.
And about women’s lives:
“I want to think. Just as much as Charles does, but no one cares what I want to think about, as they do with him, whether they are for or against what he thinks is important.”
“I want to think, too, ” said Florence, slowly. “I want a life of my own, that I choose. I want to be someone, not someone’s wife. But I don’t know much about the someone I want to be.”
“Nor do I. Dorothy does. She’s got a vocation. She’s got her future all planned out, general science exams, medical exams, surgical exams, a place in a hospital. It’s like an iron corset, I think, but she seems to need it. I think she is prepared to give up on the marriage thing. I don’t know that I would be. It would seem unnatural. But surely so does not thinking.
“Some women do both.” From page 495.
And a beautiful bit about walking on the seashore:
You have to think about walking on pebbles. Every time you put your feet down, the pebble impress themselves, hard and recalcitrant, through the soles of your shoes. They slide treacherously in front of you, to your side, you bow and recover yourself, you lean your body forward in the wind, which is usually fierce onto the shore, which takes your hair back over your head, which goes in and through the spiralling channels of you ears, feeling for your brain. Tom like the pebbles. They were fragments of huge boulders from the cliffs at the edge of England, boulders which had been soft chalk and hard flint, and were now rounded by water throwing them up and grinding them together. They are all the same and none of them exactly the same, Tom thought, pleased with this idea, like human beings — was it innumerable as stars, or innumerable as sands, and where did it come from? It didn’t matter… From page 585.
I could just keep quoting. I am in awe of the amount of research and work A.S. Byatt put into this novel. I honor her love of the tale. I have only read her short stories. Now I must read everything she has written, and wait for the next novel.
Here is a wonderful article about The Children’s Book from the New York Times.
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