Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.
I read Elementals as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.
The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries.
The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.
I wonder what the author was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.
The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.