Before reading The Children’s Book, I knew of A.S. Byatt as the woman who’d said Harry Potter was for ‘people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons’. Her New York Times article described the Potter books as symptomatic of ‘dumbing down and cultural studies’. I am no ardent Potter fan, and this self-styled preserver of proper literature – the kind that produces ‘a shiver of awe’ – interested me. So when her latest novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, it seemed time to find out what all the fuss was about. I’m afraid I still have no idea.
‘Most of its characters spend a long time dormant only occupying brief flurries of narrative zeal’
The concept is great. Spanning 25 years from the fin-de-siècle to the end of WWI, it takes in London and the Kentish countryside with a bit of Paris and bohemian Munich thrown in. The fortunes of several families become entwined, each related to the arts in different ways. Complications ensue. Love, lust and betrayal play out amidst fairy tales and dances in the woods, plus an occasional venture into the labyrinthine storage rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is poetry, pottery and creepy German puppetry in abundance.
The problem is that the novel itself vanishes in a mire of unnecessary context. Byatt has done meticulous research, as you’d expect of good historical fiction. Yet this doesn’t mean that every note she’s ever made needs to go into the finished text – which, at points in this 600-pager, seems to be her intention.
There are chapter-long chunks of fact irrelevant to the narrative: sometimes the characters struggle to slot in at all. When Hedda, the daughter of airy-fairy children’s author Olive Wellwood, decides to join the Suffragette movement, ‘She followed, eagerly, the campaign of the militants, as they broke glass and set bombs, were imprisoned, and later took to hunger-striking and suffered forcible feeding.’ Poor Hedda is almost forgotten in this sentence, part of a paragraph-long barrage of name- and date-dropping, the only purpose of which seems to be to authenticate the lives of the characters. But it doesn’t; it washes them out.
‘The book is spoiled by a mire of unecessary context’
Critics have enthused over Byatt’s ‘unapologetically intellectual writing’, but it seems to me there isn’t anything very clever about doing loads of research and then patching it together with shallow characters and a sprawling plot. If I wanted this much unadulterated history I would read a history book.
What does remain of the novel is incoherent. Most of its characters spend a long time dormant and then occupy brief flurries of narrative zeal, as they have babies or die or suddenly realize they’re in love with someone else. At times the writing’s just…bad. Olive appears ‘in a flowing sea-coloured shift, with her dark hair flowing’; the factory workers accents come and go. Byatt regularly inserts Olive’s stories as unexplained, stand-alone chapters full of gems like ‘The air felt thick, like jelly setting.’
In terms of excitement, plot coherency and depth of character, any Rowling creation would do better than this book. Its social setting is fascinating, but it doesn’t wear its learning lightly. What could have been a gripping tale ends up a laborious tome.