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The Children’s Book – A. S. Byatt

05 Feb

Children'sBookItAin'tFamous author Olive Wellwood writes a special private book, bound in different colours, for each of her children. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh they play in a story-book world – but their lives, and those of their rich cousins and their friends, the son and daughter of a curator at the new Victoria and Albert Museum, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries its own secrets.

They grow up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, but as the sons rebel against their parents and the girls dream of independent futures, they are unaware that in the darkness ahead they will be betrayed unintentionally by the adults who love them. This is the children’s book.

Why it took me three years to get around to reading this Christmas present I do not know, shame on me should be heaped on me but not in public please.  The Children’s Book is a novel of extravagant language and layered descriptions,a visually rich treat with striking backdrops and a wealth of flawed and intriguing characters, of generations that rise and diminish in the natural order of things.

To begin with the balance between plot and description was a little to skewed to the detail side of things, especially with the book opening in a museum.  Not that I didn’t enjoy that sort of thing but it would have been nice to have a little less so early on when establishing the characters and themes but stick with it as the first part especially is a sumptuous reader’s delight.   The book is superbly researched throughout in all manner of subjects from art to politics and the enquiring mind will revel in all the rabbit trails it will lead them on.

Reality and story are intertwined in all these characters’ lives touching them in various ways, the two live side by side as dualities in the memory and become both the reality and also the made up tale.  Real life brings veiled secrets, betrayals, love, hate, new understandings of the world, the battle of the classes, the struggle of feminists, the advent or war, the quest for a better, fairer society, the realisation the of self and also of the cycle of life; in terms both of generations and the paths that people take and the same roles and mistake made over and again.

The made up world lying closely in tandem brings an intrigue into the mechanisms of art,  the recycling of old ideas bringing forth the new and vibrant adventures.  The stories created are symbols to mirror the real world, yet also to aid that need to escape the very same.  As evidenced at the time the book is set with such magical stories coming out such as Peter Pan, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Five Children and It, Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden and so on.

One pleasing side effect of books is the gentle nudges to explore other works, this one is ingrained with plenty of ideas and suggestions for art, literature, music and theatre.  I will be adding a bunch more books to my list from it pages, it really is a treat for bibliophiles and those who like to learn(not that the two are ever really mutually exclusive).  The book is ingrained with so many references to artists, authors, musicians and the wide-ranging nature of the subjects encourages the enquiring mind, it was with some excitement that I consulted the internet at various times in the book to understand the nuances of the politics of the time.  Normally that would ruin my reading experience as I hate to be interrupted in my flow but this time it added to the experience, that is not to say it is needed to enjoy the book by any means.

There were some minor irritants for me as the book went on, the most obvious was the constancy of the sex references, yes its bound to crop up a lot in this sort of book but it annoyed me to the point of almost skipping ahead, allude to it and move on, we can work it out without the frequent elucidations.  After that frustrating middle part of the book where most seemed to reside, it was toned down sufficiently for me to enjoy the rest of the story.  I found the pacing of the book to be too slow at the beginning and at the end too quickly wrapped up but on reflection perhaps that perceived speed of time as one ages was being mirrored by the text.  A few characters were a little under developed and as a consequence plot threads which would have had impact or been interesting at any rate were left to the reader’s imagination but overall these points are fairly minor compared with the good points above.

It’s a satisfying book on the whole, full of energy,  vibrant with life in all its heartache and happiness.  Each character is likeable but also mildly irritating in the way that people sometimes are.  It can feel like a very long book in places but is always a fascinating look at the period of the Late Victorian and Edwardian times, it really is a book of dualities and also a celebration of creation from children to stories.   The act of learning and understanding, not just for pleasure but to better oneself is the journey that this book and so many other can take us on and it positively revels in doing just that.  The ending of the book is swift in its entrance, devastating in its emotive impact and is a stark contrast to earlier scenes which make it all the more powerful and a fine crescendo to the lives chronicled.

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36 Comments

Posted by on 05/02/2016 in Fiction

 

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36 responses to “The Children’s Book – A. S. Byatt

  1. Sarah

    05/02/2016 at 16:48

    Ok, I’ll come clean, I’d practically pressed the ‘buy it now’ button after the first few sentences. I love A.S. Byatt’s writing and the V&A is my favourite museum, so the idea of being a child and having ‘run riot’ access round the V&A made me giddy!

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    • Ste J

      05/02/2016 at 16:53

      This was my introduction to Byatt and I am looking forward to more of her books now, the museum could have a story all for itself, it is wonderful to have these imaginings again and it does make me hanker for a children’s story of that ilk now, that or some shadow puppetry.

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  2. Jill Weatherholt

    05/02/2016 at 16:53

    I love families with secrets. Thanks for the review, Ste J! Cool cover.

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    • Ste J

      05/02/2016 at 17:01

      The cover does look great and that’s why I can’t understand why it took me so long to read it, it should have caught my eye long before it did. There are lots of different storylines and secrets all over the place, there is so much in terms of imagery to stimulate your imagination as well.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  3. colemining

    05/02/2016 at 18:15

    Adding this one to the list… thanks Steve!

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    • Ste J

      05/02/2016 at 19:00

      It’s a sizeable book but has lots to enjoy. As long as I keep growing my list of books to read, I’m going to make sure everybody else does as well.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. Love, Life and Whatever

    05/02/2016 at 20:13

    I have not exposed myself to notify her writing yet but surely your review puts forward the right impetus to give it a try. The amalgamation of realism and fantasy sounds interesting especially with references of different forms of art

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 09:58

      You are in for a treat, the language and fantasy elements certainly create a wonderful atmosphere and all the talk of concepts of art and for creating really do inspire and demand action.

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  5. gargoylebruce

    05/02/2016 at 21:07

    A case of “No sex please, we’re bored with it”? Makes sense to me. This one has been on my TBR for a while too.

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 09:42

      It really is like that, sex if fine if it needs to be there for a reason but most of this was just sex for sex’s sake, all very arty at all just dull and repetitive. Maybe I just make for a picky editor.

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  6. Andrea Stephenson

    05/02/2016 at 22:06

    Sounds like a very intriguing book Ste, I’ll definitely add this one to the list!

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 09:52

      I think you will love its style, the relationship to the countryside and of course imagination and myth.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  7. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    05/02/2016 at 22:23

    Quite an intriguing review..I’m adding it to my TBR list ( well, the list is becoming longer with every passing day) 😀

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 09:44

      I would like to feel guilty for my contribution to your long list but I actually revel in it, mwahahaha!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. macjam47

    06/02/2016 at 02:18

    The cover is beautiful. Does it lend itself to the story? This sounds so interesting, and the one thing I don’t need is another book in the tumbling TBR, but I will probably have to add it. I love your review, as always. It is written with great care to spur interest without spoilers.
    I’m behind once again. Sorry I’m so late in reading and responding to your post. Have a wonderful weekend, Steve.

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 09:49

      The cover is complementary of the words inside, my copy is a hardback copy as well which always seem so much more satisfying for such covers. I was tempted to put in a sort of not really spoiler, which for me is very rare but was unsure if it would lessen its impact or heighten it, so thought I best leave it and let people experience it all without me potentially ruining it.

      I’m behind as well, its been over a week since I visited and yesterday was my first post in ten or so days, the life of a blogger,eh! Have a great weekend yourself.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Liz Dexter

    06/02/2016 at 12:00

    I loved this book and remember it well even though I read it a while ago. I did find it a tiny bit emotionally manipulative in some later scenes, but very well done and totally engrossing. Enjoy her others – I think you’d like her Frederica Quartet that starts with The Virgin in the Garden, although Babel Tower has some HORRIBLE passages from a “banned book” that comes into the narrative.

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 13:08

      I have been looking at a lot of her books recently and I am a sucker for an epic story told over a number of books. Why is bookshelf space always at a premium!

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  10. shadowoperator

    06/02/2016 at 12:45

    What has always amazed me about Byatt is the way she seems to be putting a whole life of knowledge and experience into every book–and yet, it’s a different life in every book! My friend, your next mission is to read her book “The Biographer’s Tale,” which I promise you will enjoy, and then perhaps “LIttle Black Book of Stories.”

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 13:02

      I find that about Márquez, that he lives each life so thoroughly that it seems he must physically have done so. I had a look at the blurb for The Biographer’s Tale and it mentioned Borges so how could I not go in search of it now!

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  11. clarepooley33

    06/02/2016 at 16:53

    Great review Ste! I haven’t read any of her books yet, though have been tempted a number of times. This will go on my list. I always find unnecessary sex in novels such an off-putting thing. Why such a renowned novelist should feel the urge to include it I have no idea. I know the Fabian’s were a little liberal with their favours but that can be implied.

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    • Ste J

      06/02/2016 at 21:25

      Personally I prefer my sex like a TV programme in which we come back later on or leave them as they shut a door or turn a light off and go out of shot. The majority of the book is a good read, if there were less sex references then I would have enjoyed the book more, not that I am a prude or anything, I just like the plot to move along.

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      • clarepooley33

        06/02/2016 at 22:56

        I agree with you. If the sex is part of the plot then that’s fine but if it isn’t why include it.

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  12. Resa

    06/02/2016 at 23:32

    I read this earlier when I was logged into my Art Gowns blog. I really adore the review!
    I don’t know what to say sometimes. You are so well read, and your appreciation & respect of the written word is absolutely evident. There may be a book somewhere in your blog that you just hated, and say so, but I haven’t read that review yet. Thank you Ste J!

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    • Ste J

      07/02/2016 at 09:59

      There are a couple I hated, The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey (which I read as people encouraged me as they thought it would be funny to see get angry about it) and The Man Every Woman Wants, other than that I have done my best to find the positives even in books that aren’t my thing or just not very good. I wish I had the time to write more reviews, there are so many books and authors I haven’t gotten around to yet, sigh! I appreciate you reading, even if you don’t always know what to say my friend, I enjoy your company.

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  13. Lucy

    07/02/2016 at 08:17

    The problem for me with sex scenes is they are so subjective, and what one person likes can have another another cringing, another laughing, and another put off their tea. It’s like the author suddenly inserting a comedy scene, great if you find personally them funny, but a waste of time if you don’t.

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    • Ste J

      07/02/2016 at 10:03

      True, although if I wanted a sex scene I would pick up a Mills and Boon, which thankfully I never do apart from that one I got for my birthday which I then felt compelled to read (for politeness) and review (so I could trash it). If sex scenes weren’t included in books I bet the reviews would be more positive overall.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  14. shoshibookblog

    07/02/2016 at 22:20

    This sounds intriguing. I haven’t read any Byatt since ‘Possession’, years ago, and your review is really making me wonder why I’ve left it so long. Thank you for the reminder to add ‘The Children’s Book’ to the ever-growing list…

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    • Ste J

      09/02/2016 at 14:00

      I have heard many people talk up Possession but haven’t gotten around to that one yet, this mutual list growing is a dangerous but addictive thing.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  15. Sherri

    16/02/2016 at 16:39

    Now this is a book that really grabs me, loving all things Edwardian. I love the idea of the ‘idyllic’ way of life threatened by an undercurrant of betrayal and darkness, and then the wondering how it will all resolve and end up, which here, sounds utterly compelling. This is a must read for me, thanks again Ste for another fantastic review!

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    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 19:16

      You will enjoy it, there is a lot of good in there, although it does perhaps go on a little too long. The visual imager, especially in the first 100 or so pages will be right up your street. Shadow puppetry is great too!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  16. anna amundsen

    17/02/2016 at 11:54

    I fell in love with Byatt while reading Possession, or even while I was reading an essay about Possession.
    Flaws aside, this kind of richness in writing will always be highly appreciated. As Umberto Eco, she is thought provoking, she’s giving a bunch of information, many references, great story, beautiful style and an opportunity to experience, in a best way possible, another century..

    Since there aren’t many of her books I haven’t read yet I began to savor them.. One every six months or so.. I am saving this one for the spring. 🙂

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    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 19:52

      I feel excited that I have all her other books to read, I haven’t been able to pick any up of late but hoping to get my hands on some soon. Eco is a good comparison for the writing and the amount crammed into it, Which reminds me I need to read Eco’s latest as well…

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