The Children’s Book

byatt_childrens_book

I disagree with the world’s definition of a “holiday book.”  “The perfect Summer read” gasps the sort of big-fonted-book that brings me out in an attack of snob-hives.

The term seems to be permission to read – well, let’s not mince our words: to read utter crap.  Katie, 35, on a summer holiday, when some dark stranger comes with a terrible secret that’s about to change everything.  Gah! Stab me in the heart.  Let me propose an alternative: holiday is the time to take on the challenge of those books that you actually think about.

Frankly, in day to day life, when can you take on something that actually needs reflection?  Never, dears.  You’re living your frantic, illuminated, pixellated life, a thousand things to tick off, a hundred people to see, work, play, love, commute.  It’s only on holiday that your brain has the chance to breathe, and for there to grapple and engage with a subject. I’d been struggling with A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book for a week or so at home, but once on holiday, it was given a new lease of life.  In fact, it got my academic cells whirring like they haven’t in years.  A.S.Byatt is a proper literary author, with themes, layers, things to say: put simply, she has skillz.  My brain was veritably bubbling over with the chocabloc content of this book.   I found myself wildly scribbling in my diary: “Is it anti-pastoral? It systematically deconstructs the idyll… radical politics fails in favour of the power of the domestic…” Direct quote, people.  My diary is a SCREAM.

Let’s back up a bit: The Children’s Book is the tale of a group of families from the 1890s to the end of World War One, covering the period when the younger generation move from child to adult.  Byatt specialises in this Edwardian period, and has a a very distinct brand of fine decorative detail mixed with impressive historic and political knowledge.  Possession is her famous novel, but in my opinion, this is better.  It is totally vivid – worlds brought to life so clearly that I can picture every major setting clear as crystal some weeks after finishing it.  The book is suffused with Artistry and Craft: you can’t move for potters, and jewellers, and authors.  But culture is weighed against nature: the countryside and sea form a evocative and relevant counterbalance.  It’s packed with issues of realness, of innocence, of sexuality, of the value of work, the terrible and immense power of war. Further layers lie thick: historic detail of the Suffragettes, of Fabianism, of the decorative and performing arts in Europe.

The story opens in a Victoria and Albert Museum equivalent and then kicks off in earnest in an apparent pastoral idyll: a huge, disorderly Midsummer Night Party (Midsummer Night Dream themed, of course) in the rambling Kent house of a celebrated author with seven children, all running around in wildness and fancy dress, while more and more families keep descending.

From this delightful childhood wildness, the book moves slowly but inexorably to the sudden and unmitigated horrors of the First World War.  Characters we’ve followed for hundreds of pages, snuffed out instantly: a holocaust of the young men which quite literally made me weep.  You could call it a loss of innocence, and of course it is, but the book isn’t so simplistic: the idyllic beginning is thoroughly called into question both as you learn the truth of the adults and see the impact on the children.  Pastoralism, living wild, is not tenable.  If anything wins (and the War makes you doubt it), it is the domestic: family and love, although each of these have been destabilised through the previous 300 pages.  Perhaps a message boils down to this: love and family are imperfect, painful, flawed: but they’re also the best of us.

As ever, my torrent of analytic enthusiasm may overshadow the fact that the book is at times a bit of a drag to read.  It’s long, and there are at least 12 basic, primary characters as well as a whole host of secondary characters, so you need to concentrate quite a lot to remember who is related to whom, who is the master German marionette artiste and who is the radical Fabian German tutor.  But for its intellectual gristle, it was worth every page.  I only wish I had read this book at 20 – I would have written my dissertation on it.

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