Tag Archives: fiction

The Children’s Book- A. S. Byatt

Open at your Own Risk

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.


Chinese New Year: Top Five Fictional Rabbits

In honour of the Chinese year, the year of the rabbit, my list of my favourite rabbits in fiction are as follows:

1.       Velveteen Rabbit The Velveteen Rabbit Margery Williams

2.       Br’er Rabbit from The Uncle Remus Stories Joel Chandler Harris

3. Peter Rabbit The Tales of Beatrix Potter

4.       Hazel and co. of Watership Down Richard Adams

5.       The White Rabbit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Special mention to Rabbit of Winnie The Pooh fame.

Lettice Reading

To me, rabbits have always had a certain pluck and are far from the insipid little beasties they always seem to be portrayed as. That might just be as a result of my pet rabbits having bullied me through the years, but I’ve chosen my rabbits to reflect this, with the White Rabbit thrown in for a bit of variety.

I will never forget hearing the story of The Velveteen Rabbit when I was about four years old and how sad that made me. If you haven’t read it yet, then you really, really must. If you’re in the mood to weep over rabbits (well, you never know) one that has the potential to get me going is a poem by Roger McGough Rabbit in a Mixer Survives based on the true story of a little rabbit who fell into a cement mixer.

My Two Pennies Worth

Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.

My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.

When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.

I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.

Her Fearful Symmetry- Audrey Niffenegger

Identical twins scare people. Think The Shining. Julia and Valentina Poole are even more disconcerting, because, far from being mere identical twins, they are mirror twins, each a perfect reflection of the other- even beneath their skin. At twenty years old they do everything together; watch television, go out, eat… even drop out of college. The desires of the individuals are sacrificed to meet the needs of the unit. The sisters couldn’t be closer.

However, when their mother’s mirror twin dies in London, a woman the twins have never heard of, let alone met, she leaves the sisters all her possessions in her will on the condition that their parents are never allowed to enter her flat.

Desperate for adventure, the sisters move to her flat, an antiquarian’s dream overlooking Highgate Cemetery, forces neither twin could imagine begin to drive a wedge between them. Throw in a crossword setter who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and a man more at ease with the dead than the living and you have another excellent novel from the best-selling author of The Time Traveller’s Wife.

As anyone who has read The Time Traveller’s Wife knows, Niffenegger is bringing Magic Realism into the main stream with breathtaking stories which focus as much on characters and their relationships than the exceptional circumstances in which they life. Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t disappoint in this respect, as Niffenegger weaves a modern Gothic Fairytale; crafting her characters with care, exploring their humanity and building drama creating stock heroes and villains. These characters are beautiful and flawed. Sketched on the page in simple black and white words, they are you and me; they are exceptionally vivid.

Niffenegger creates a multi layered story, and though the snaking plot threads are complex enough to ensnare the reader, they never become tangled by the magnitude and otherness of the story. At times, elements of the plot did become predictable in a way that The Time Traveller’s Wife never did but make no mistake, this novel is a great work of fiction and stands alone from its famous older sibling.

If you have no inclination to pick up this brilliant novel, I would recommend reading it for the character of Martin and the Highgate Cemetery Setting alone. The prose is beautiful, the plot well constructed; it was Martin however who simultaneously seemed wholly absurd and wholly alive to me. I’ve actually started to learn to do cryptic crosswords because of his character.

In a similar way, I am already planning a trip to Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger’s description made me feel like Highgate was a place that I had spent my childhood in, exploring in the brambles yet terrified of the gravestones and mausoleums. Perhaps that’s a sign of a great writer; the ability to make an unknown environment at once familiar and other.

One day I will also visit Highgate and explore the environment I read about with such interest. I wonder if I will see shadows of the characters moving around. I call it New Gothic or Magic Realism (because we all like to label things) but behind the fantasy I almost believe this story could be true.

Read while eating slightly stale digestive biscuits, in a battered only arm chair by the light of a dim and somewhat rusty lamp.