14 October 2009

The Children's Book

I love A.S. Byatt. Possession is easily one of the best books in the English language (haterz need not respond). I was stalking my pre-order of The Children's Book for weeks before the US release date - see previous postings about Man Booker prize nominees for my issue with the delay between UK/US printings - and happily toted my copy home the day before the Booker was awarded. I was pulling for Byatt; she didn't win but she did write a beautiful book.

Creating fictional Victorian writers is a Byatt specialty (cf. Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash from Possession) and the pieces "written" by her characters can easily be mistaken for authentic period pieces; I should know, having Googled LaMotte and Ash thinking they were real but obscure. Byatt is a Victorianist and she knows her stuff (was co-editor of a volume of George Eliot's work), mixing it with influences from D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. The Victorian "writer" in this novel is Olive Wellwood, Fabian idealist and writer of fairy tales who also writes a private book for each of the seven children in the Wellwood family (Olive plunders her children's private books for publishable stories). One of the more fascinating aspects of the "literary" world in The Children's Book is the inclusion of German puppen and marchen (in need of umlaut, I know) elements to mix with the English fairy stories. Aschenputtel (Cinderella) figures very prominently early in the story.

What I loved most about this novel is that there is truly no central "plot" - no mystery, no central conflict to resolve - but instead the novel chronicles the development of the World War I generation, the men and women born as Victorian England gave way to the twentieth-century and grew up to give their lives on the battlefields. Byatt gave herself a set length of time and chronicled the development of her characters' lives over approximately twenty years, much like a parent would do with a baby book. There is a sense of inevitablility in The Children's Book - Byatt cannot change the major events of history, cannot blot out World War I, and so fits her characters' lives around reality. All done with lush prose, too.

I'm to the point where all I really want to do is drool over this book and not say anything intelligent about it; I like it that much. So go; read it. Marie at The Boston Bibliophile has an excellent review of The Children's Book so if you need more convincing she has a few more reasons why you should get thee to a library/bookstore and read The Children's Book.

On to Wolf Hall - it won the Booker over The Children's Book so it better be pretty good.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 2/3

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