Ever since I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I’ve been yearning to read another Byatt novel that would delight me as much. The Children’s Book came awfully close.
This novel is a huge undertaking for the author. It’s a magnum opus of a British family living in a time of major political, social and economic change.
Byatt is a master with language. Her style is Victorian and beautifully descriptive:
“The passage opened into a dusty vault, crammed with a crowd of white effigies, men, women and children, staring out with sightless eyes.”
Despite the nearly 900 pages in length, Byatt’s literary eloquence carried me along effortlessly; it was was as romantic and dreamlike as a Rachmaninoff symphony.
She also satisfied my love of history, with the novel’s perspectives on the Socialist movement, women’s rights, pottery, literature and war.
I wondered whether Byatt was making a social commentary. At one point she said that in the early 20th century, adults decided that children needed time to run and play – to be children – because adults really wanted to be children themselves. If you look at the specific societal changes applied in the book, this definitely holds true with her characters. For instance, Frank Methley, ever keen on introducing his women friends to lectures and ideas about women’s suffrage, did so with the selfish motivation of getting them into bed. Here’s a man who is truly a child – he wants what he wants, with no thought as to the consequences. Bearing responsibility for one’s actions and the practice of selflessness is the hallmark of adulthood. Mr. Methley, acting in the guise of progress, was actually of vile, juvenile character.
In fact, the story of the children in the family, all of their trials and suffering, seemed to stem from the these societal changes wrought by their parents, or at the very least, those of their parent’s generation. Perhaps Byatt was merely pointing out that all change leads to uncomfortable consequences. The security once had in family life constricted by social norms, is traded away for individual freedoms. The security of nation-states based on monarchies that develop familial alliances, is traded away for the freedom to choose one’s own government.
There were times when parts of this novel ran a bit long, and I also noted that the characters always felt distant from me, the reader. At least until the end of the book. The impact of World War I on the characters truly touched me. Because of that, I decided to withhold half a star. Otherwise, it is a wonderful, well-written novel that is as lush as it is thought-provoking.
4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009