The Children’s Book, or My Descent into Insanity

There is a well known saying, meant to encourage those going through times of immense hardship and suffering. ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. This is, by and large, an accurate assessment of most of life’s trials; you come through them having learnt a little more about yourself, your capacity for endurance, and your own inner strength.

This is how I feel today. I have been lost in the wilderness, my friends. For two long, long, weeks, I have been trapped in a dark tunnel of quiet despair, otherwise known as The Children’s Book. There were moments, especially around pages 250-300, in which I feared the end would never come. But today I am walking in the light. The light of a world that no longer has The Children’s Book in it. And this world is good. So good.

Reading this book has been an experience fraught with conflicting emotions. At times I was in love with it; the Victorian period was my specialist subject at university and I work at the Victoria and Albert Museum; in addition, the vast majority of my mother’s family, as well as my parents and siblings, live in the regions of Kent the book is set in, and so the period and setting had a significant personal resonance and interest for me. The descriptions of the Kent landscape, of the bowels of the Museum that I did not even know existed, of the chaotic and unconventional households, of the artistic and intellectual scene of the times, are rich and intense and evocative and wonderfully written. It is a book that feeds the imagination; that brings the world it describes alive. It is a narrative woven with the passion and inventiveness of its author.

Therefore, for me, this should have been a perfect, fascinating, entertaining and wholly absorbing read. It is remarkably imaginative, and incredibly brave; it takes on an intriguing, meandering tale of a large cast of diverse and complex characters, making their way in a society that is riding high on the crest of a wave of great idealism, innovativeness, and social change. For the amount of characters there are, Byatt manages to make them all reasonably well rounded and individual; Olive Wellwood, the fairy story writer and matriarch of the main family in the novel, is particularly brilliant as a woman so wrapped up in her own imagination and achievements that she cares more for the stories she writes for each of her children than the children themselves. The central conceit of a generation of idealistic, childlike people obsessed with fairytales, the sanctity of childhood and a simpler, pastoral life giving birth to a generation of anarchists, social reformers and innocents wholly unprepared for the war that was going to sweep most of them away into a death that many no longer believed was just the beginning of a glorious afterlife, is poignant, fascinating and thought provoking.

But. Somehow, all of this brilliance and promise got lost in a mire of excessive detail, unnecessary plot lines, far too many characters, and a shocking lack of editing. We’ve all been there; you do a lot of time consuming research for an essay, you are totally consumed and interested in the subject matter, and you end up going 5,000 words over the limit because you’ve just got to shoehorn everything in, and to you, it all appears essential. I feel this is what Byatt has done. In her desire to thoroughly evoke the period, she has shoved everything you could possibly ever want to know about the Victorian and Edwardian periods into this book, inflating it to a daunting and unnecessary length that dilutes the good in it to the point where all that you can see is the bad. There is no plot as such; just a gradual movement through the years from the late 19th century to the end of the first world war. Nothing in particular happens, apart from a lot of people get pregnant, and I mean a lot, there is a good deal of incest and free lovin’, and plenty of confused teenagers and philosophical talk. All of a sudden war is declared and everyone troops off then everyone dies the end. That bit made me really angry. I dedicate two weeks to this book and I DON’T EVEN GET AN ENDING?! I DESERVE A PROPER ENDING!!!!! It felt like even Byatt couldn’t be bothered any more by the end and just wrapped things up as quickly as possible; the last few chapters are rushed and full of unlikely and contrived coincidences that don’t really gel with the style of the rest of the novel. It was an incredibly disappointing way to finish what had already been a thoroughly disappointing book. By the end my initial love had turned to a hate so strong I could have done unmentionable things to my really rather nice copy. And I never deface my books.

There is no real point in summarising the plot because there really isn’t one. There is no real point in describing the characters, because there are too many. I am sad that this book did not live up to its promise; I am sad that it didn’t come anywhere close to the brilliance of Possession, and more than anything, I am sad that I spent two weeks of MY LIFE reading this over hyped and really rather pretentious novel that promised so much and delivered so little.

Now I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I have a lot of respect for A S Byatt. I mean, she’s far cleverer than I am, and I certainly haven’t got any novels or Booker Prizes to my name so I’m not about to point my untalented fingers in her direction and shout abuse. BUT I do think she let herself down with this. If you want to write a thesis on the Victorian period, then go ahead. But don’t thinly disguise it as a novel with a really pretty cover.

If you like a challenge, and want to steep yourself in the Victorian period, and don’t mind books with no plot, then by all means, read this. You may love it. I may have missed the point completely. However, if, like me, you like a good, rollicking plot and a good amount of character development, then this won’t be for you. I would highly recommend Possession, though; it does have a fantastic plot and brilliant characters, and I think part of why I have been so disappointed with The Children’s Book is because I loved Possession so much, and was expecting something similar, and got completely the opposite instead.

Now I am free I am going to indulge in reading some wonderfully light and frivolous novels before perhaps tackling another behemoth…Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which Bloomsbury Bell has assured me is very very good.

And, finally, if you want a humorous review of The Children’s Book, as well as the other Booker shortlisted novels, read this article from The Guardian; it’s hysterical!

18 comments

  1. I imagine as it's a heavy book carting it around has actually made you stronger. Better look with the next one, ou deserve something nice and fluffy to read now.

  2. Hehe, I think I will stick with the digested read version. Well done for getting to the end, I think you deserve a gold star.

  3. Hallelujah! I thought this day might never come. Wolf Hall is a very different sort of book, and I just flew through it, but it sounds like something lighter is called for now to clear your head.

  4. We are much stronger but a little more bitter and I do not mean the royal "we" because, as you know, I agree on all points.

  5. I am absolutely going to avoid this like the plague as I couldn't even focus on the short extract that A.S. Byatt read out the other night at the Southbank Centre!Well done for sticking with it – although you now need some proper enjoyable reading! I will bring in Strangers for you.

  6. The gorgeous cover makes this all the more sad.. such a beautiful cover gone to waste.. ah well. I maybe will try Wolf Hall instead, or reread Possession..

  7. Well, here's to being stronger and putting the experience behind you! Possession was on my recent 'bucket list', but I'll definitely be skipping this. Looking forward to the US release of Wolf Hall in a few days…

  8. Yikes, I'm definitely not going to waste money buying that. I'm a big fan of Possession and The Virgin in the Garden, but I'm also a fan of plots. I hope your next book more than makes up for slogging through that!

  9. I am sad this book didn't live up to its hype for you. It has such a gorgeous cover! I also really enjoyed Possession (the last page just killed me), so it's unfortunate this one doesn't quite stack up. But if it makes you feel better, I adored Wolf Hall!

  10. Oh what a hoot – I loved reading your posts about The Children's Book. My copy is sitting beside the bed with the bookmark stuck (literally and figuratively) at about 120 pages. I diligently wrote out a page listing all the characters and their relationships (well, those up to page 120) – there were so many and unfortunately I just didn't care for any of them. I love books which detail the social history of the times but you have to have compelling characters too!

  11. I often feel the same way about Historical novels – particularly those based in the Victorian period and onwards. I generally wonder afterwards why I have bothered to read something written by a contemporary author when there is such good literature available which was written at the time! They so often have modern pre-occupations and characters whose actions and motivations are completely anomalous with the period. Additionally, as an historian, historical inaccuracies really irritate me!! Having said that, there are always exceptions to every rule, and there are some historical novels that I have really enjoyed. On a side note – I am currently reading The Children’s Book and really enjoying it. I can completely understand people’s criticisms of it, but I am about half way through and am thoroughly hooked. I am finding it quite flowing and lyrical and, again, this is probably the historian in me, quite like the historical details A.S. Byatt includes. It may be because it was one of my ‘Christmas books’ so I could devote lots of time to it – I think if I’d been reading it on the tube to begin with I would be struggling now!

  12. O thank goodness I feel so much better Rachel now I have read your review. I nipped over here after you left a message on my review of same, and you have expressed my feelings so much better than I!

  13. I just read Elaine's review of the book and then came over here to read your excellent one. I haven't read The Children's Book and don't intend to but I agree completely with your thesis, see here.

  14. I have been unsure of this book. People review it and don’t go into enough detail. So when I came across your review I thought, well, I trust her, I’ll read it if she liked it. And then I read your first paragraph! Suffice it to say that I probably won’t get to the Byatt, but I loved your review. Thanks!

  15. Fabulous write-up! As Constance Reader said, “I have been unsure of this book. People review it and don’t go into enough detail.”. You have done a superb review and do not leave the reader guessing. Thanks!

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