Reflections: The Children's Book
A narrative, a history lesson, a treatise on the material culture of Europe before WWI, a reflection on the various burdens of the woman's condition: A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book defies a basic generic descriptor. For whatever else it may be, it is a surprisingly long novel in the contemporary market, and quite an ambitious one at that.
The novel takes place in England, and spans the years between the establishment of the Fabian Society and the end of the first World War. It casts its net over a broad cast of characters, from the working class potter Philip and his sister Elsie to a German puppeteer to an egocentric author of children's literature, Olive Wellwood, and her unconventional family. Like the fairy tales of Olive (and of most good children's fiction writers), Byatt's world is peopled by adults who are largely unimportant except insofar as their actions, beliefs, ambitions, and interests shape the generation of children who celebrate Midsummer's Eve in 1895. It is a generation that grows with the promise of equality among the classes, better opportunities for women, and more sexual freedom than the Victorian era had afforded. It is a generation that crumbles under the pressure of failed social movements and unspeakable violence in the trenches of Europe.
To recount the particular actions of individual characters would be to miss the point. In fact, when Byatt goes wrong, it is by getting too particular (usually in a way either unbelievable or mawkishly sentimental) with the telling of her characters' lives. At no point do any of them stand out as fully-developed subjects. Rather, they each stand in for a way of life peculiarly open to this particular generation. The personages of the story come in and out of the reader's awareness, briefly personifying a dilemma, a freedom, or a theory that shaped the age.The broad cast buoys up this unique narrative style, and successfully creates the era itself as the protagonist--a not unimpressive feat.
Byatt's vision of an era alternatively propelled by the mystical or the Utopian and the supremely practical is impressive. It is occasionally marred, however, with the sudden narration of unrelated historical facts, or with a ham-fisted psychologizing of these characters otherwise defined for the reader through action. The useless insertion of incest and suicide suggest a grasped at, and missed, profundity in the creation of a character. Worse, these moments, for a short time, destroy the truly interesting creation of the collective psychology that is this novel's real innovation. Although not perfect, The Children's Book has a great deal to offer.
Posted by Mille Feuille