August 3, 2010

The Children's Book by A S Byatt: Review

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I thought this would be my last book. That I would be 100 years old, in a nursing home, clutching this book to my bosom, sighing "Just...one...more...chapter." But I prevailed! Not that this isn't an amazing book (it is) but I can only describe reading it like walking through knee deep molasses. It's slow going.

The Children's Book by A S Byatt is definitely not for children. It's about a group of quasi-Bohemian Brits writing children's stories, making pottery and numerous children. The book is massive partly because it covers a period of time from the end of the Victorian era to the end of World War I. There are numerous characters as well, I can't even begin to describe them all. The adults at the beginning of the novel have issues involving sex and infidelity. Who's the Baby Daddy? is the a question all the children end up having to deal with later on. These parents really know how to eff up their kids.

The Children's Book reminded me of George Eliot's Middlemarch, not just it's sheer size but how it meanders in and out of the lives of the various characters. One minute we're seeing what Dorothy is up to, the next finding out what Olive is thinking. There is a lot of thinking in this book but I never found that it dragged. I loved the characterization. They became so real to me. I keep thinking that they were!

Where Eliot might be overly descriptive of rural scenery, Byatt details the political atmosphere and historical events of the era. It can be overwhelming at times but envelopes the reader in that charged atmosphere, one that fueled art and radical thinking. The characters often just happen to bump into people like Oscar Wilde and JM Barrie. That might be annoying in any other book but considering who these characters are supposed to be, it fits. Besides the real Europe of the time, Byatt creates a world on the edge of a British wood. A place where a writer imagines sinister plots for fairy tales and a mad potter designs disturbing images in clay. Where everyone has secrets hidden away.

A lot of bad things happen during the book and lots of people die but by the end I felt that the characters who deserved happiness found it. It was a satisfying ending and after 600+ pages, I was glad of it.

I highly recommend it but be warned it will suck up a lot of time.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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19 comments :

  1. Ha! Love your opening paragraph. I've felt that way about books sometimes.

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  2. Excellent review, and not so different from others I've read. Comparing it to Middlemarch is a little daunting for me, as I started that one a couple of years ago but couldn't finish it. This sounds like one to be saved for a couple of snow days.

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  3. Like Elisabeth, I was almost on board until you mentioned Middlemarch!

    This is a great review, though. Many of the reviews of this book I read talk about Byatt more than the novel itself. So I appreciate the little glimpses into the plot. It's refreshing for a change.

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  4. Great review! I really do want to read this one, but will need to carefully choose the time. I'm thinking winter...

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  5. I really enjoyed this book, although I thought a lot of it could have been left out with no detriment to the reader. Thanks for your review!

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  6. I definitely want to read this one, but don't plan on getting to it anytime soon. Thanks for the review.

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  7. I'm not big on meandering, so I think I'll have to be in the right mood to read this one.

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  8. This is the ONLY book that I have abandoned this entire year. I just couldn't do it.

    And I'm so impressed that you pushed through and prevailed!

    And I couldn't help but notice that this one has been added to the 2010 version of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Argggghhhhh.

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  9. I really like her short stories and really want to read this. I like books that jump around so think this will suit me :)

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  10. Lenore- I had to get serious about reading it the last 2 days or I think I would never have finished it.

    Elisabeth- I had to give Middlemarch at least 2 tries before I took to it. So don't worry.

    Constance- This was my first Byatt and knowing how big a deal she is, I avoided reading anything about her. I wanted the book to speak for itself.

    Joann- Winter would be perfect!

    Nancy- Some of the history stuff could have been left out.

    Swapna- I hope you do read it someday.

    Kathy- It needs the right mood.

    Michele- Oh no! Maybe some other time.

    Rhinoa- I liked that about it. If there had been a focus on just one or two people, I think it would have bored me.

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  11. That is a GREAT comparison. I loved this book and I'm loving Middlemarch too - they do demand a lot of time and patience, but they're worth it.

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  12. Hmmm, this seems like a bit too much effort for me for the moment! I love your opening sentence too, can totally relate! :-)

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  13. I've had this book for over 6 months but can't seem to jump in yet...LOL Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

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  14. Holy crap. I didn't realize it's that much of a chunkster. I tried reading Possession eons ago, and I had absolutely no luck. Need to try Byatt again, but I think I'll start with something shorter, like The Little Black Book of Short Stories.

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  15. Congratulations on finishing! I stalled on Possession, too...both the written and the audio. Maybe Andi and I should start a Byatt support group.

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  16. I don't know what to think...you snagged me with the comparison to Middlemarch, but on the other hand, being 100 yrs old and wading through literary molasses gave me pause.

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  17. I've heard many remarks on the slow reading of this book. I'm glad you did enjoy it in the end.

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  18. I adored the Children's Book! It was my favourite book of last year. I agree it was heavy going in places - especially all the stuff about puppets - but I loved the people. And I agree with you about the ending - very satisfying. Even though it was long, I didn't want it to finish!

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  19. I really enjoyed it as well. Your first paragraph is spot-on! I read quickly and yet I'd be reading this book for 2 hours and had only made it through 30-40 pages. Literary molasses is a fantastic way to describe it. I felt like it would never end.

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