Review: The Children’s Book

January 25, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Children’s Book

This book made me angry. For many reasons. The bottom line is, I didn’t like it, and now I am going to go on at great length about why.

It’s the story of Olive Wellwood, a woman with many children who writes dark fairytales for children. Or is it about Tom, her favorite child? Or Dorothy, the ambitious one? Or Philip, the character they discover hiding in a museum and who has very little importance to the story? It follows everyone in the family as well as everyone of their acquaintance from 1895 to 1919. In the meantime, everyone desires everyone else, sometimes with vague sexual results, sometimes not. Then World War I happens, and provides A.S. Byatt with a satisfactory ending device. The end. There is no overarching story or theme, the characters vary wildly in roundness, and Byatt can’t decide who is the main character.

The main reason I dislike this book is that Byatt has no taste, in that she has no sense of how much is too much in terms of characters, description, historical background, sex/love, &c. Right off the bat there is a party in which you are presented with…gosh, I don’t even know…at least twenty characters, complete with physical description and background, before you have the chance to get to know any of them or distinguish them. It would be nice to be able to come across a description of Griselda Wellwood (yes, Griselda) and think, oh, yes, that’s the girl with the insightful comment at the dinner party who generally doesn’t like to dance. But instead Byatt flings names and descriptions and back stories at you so fast that you get buried in them and have to figure out all the characters later. You think, oh, but this is only the beginning of the book. Once all the characters are established, I’ll have a handle on it. But she does it everywhere, describing incidental roommates and speakers and cousins who never actually figure in the story. It’s too much, right away, and always.

This holds for historical figures, too, although you never get the chance to figure them out. She takes enormous trouble over the historical setting; whole chapters are devoted to describing the European political climate at the time, in stultifyingly dull sections that, in an attempt to be less dry than a history book, turn out to be bewildering. I shall never forget the terrible summary of 1902-1907, where paragraphs summarizing arcane politics and involving the names of at least four politicians you’ve never heard of are interspersed with paragraphs about each Wellwood child in turn, and what ages they were, and what they did, and what they thought. Then the story picks back up…sometime in between 1902 and 1907. The whole section of the book is an incomprehensible snarl of poorly organized nonsense. Clearly, Byatt knows this period extremely well, in all its aspects, which would be commendable if she hadn’t so thoroughly lost sight of the layman’s viewpoint. She covers all this history in a way that implicitly expects you to recognize all of it, as if she’s reviewing long division for college students, which has the effect of making it even more confusing than it is. In addition, very little of the historical context is actually germane to the story. She goes on and on about the Kaiser and the women suffragists, when really it would be enough to write one or two lines when it comes up. Hedda, one of the daughters, becomes deeply involved in the women’s movement, and it would be enough, when her involvement came up, to summarize the movement’s progress to date in a short paragraph. Instead, Byatt keeps us updated on every thrown brick and hunger strike that takes place over the entire span of the book. I see what she’s doing—she’s trying to keep us conscious of it so that when Hedda gets involved we know what’s going on, and feel the length of the fight as much as she does—but it is misguided and doesn’t work.

And Byatt has no upper limit on schmaltzy sex. There is so much sex in this book it becomes completely pedestrian and dull. If you tried to draw a relationship map of this book, it would look like a solid black circle, that’s how many people had affairs with each other and molested their children and seduced their students.

In my opinion, she missed a wonderful opportunity in neglecting to give this book any supernatural elements. Her imagination for dark fairytales like the ones Olive writes (some of which are included) is quite good, and I enjoyed the parts of the book that dealt with Olive imagining and writing new stories and plays. The novel is a brilliant example of how differently a book reads when its author is passionate about the characters and the story; the parts about Olive’s writing sparkle and move fast, are gripping and fascinating, while much of the rest of the book is rather lackluster. The book should have been about that, and only that. The tales died out towards the end, to my disappointment, and their profusion towards the beginning led me to expect some chilling and eldritch denouement when Byatt describes Benedict Fludd, a potter with a wife and two daughters who are peculiarly cold and lifeless; or Anselm Stern, a puppeteer whose marionette performances are extraordinary and disturbing; or Tom Wellwood, who slowly loses interest in “doing” something with his life and spends all his time in the woods. I was prepared for Anselm Stern to be a fairy or sorceror, dark but benign. I thought Benedict Fludd, famous for his astonishing pottery, had made his women out of clay and animated them with dark magic. I was ready for Tom to cross over into the fairy world, or to have been a fairy all along. In general, though, these intriguing beginnings turned out to be mostly explained by—surprise!—sex. Everyone is scarred because someone molested them or cheated on them, or they’re unhealthily repressing their desires, or both.

The Children’s Book is characterized by sensationalist, salacious voyeurism and interest in the sexuality of the time, and depicts everyone as hopping from pole to pole over a pit of seething sexuality, like that scene in Iron Monkey (the poles, not the sex). It’s sort of disgusting. It’s sickeningly repetitive: over and over, Byatt firmly establishes the strict Victorian code of behavior, then freezes it and lifts everyone’s skirts and looks behind everyone’s doors. That sort of thing can on occasion be titillating when done right and in moderation, but Byatt is clumsy and conspicuous about it, and by the end I just didn’t care whether this or that couple had sex or not. It was nice at first to see characters worried that their motives would be construed as sexual when they are being generous or friendly…until some of them develop passions for their students or protegés or whatever. And finally, it is tiresome to deal with repression. Yeah, okay, people of earlier times were repressed. But it is irksome to read books written with this kind of conspiratorial voyeurism and this kind of eagerness to see the grimy underbellies of Victorians when modern people aren’t exactly models of honesty and self-acceptance, either. It feels indecent. There are times when Byatt pulls it off nicely, when the fact that everything is a taboo makes aberrations a little more disturbing, but in general she is quite inept. Sex is supposed to be the motivation par excellence, and I guess that’s why she felt so entitled to write about it over and over, but I found myself wishing for the complex motivations that come from a character that is very real to the author, ones that can’t be expressed in one word, like the ones Tom Wolfe or John Irving would write—you know their sex scenes would be much more disturbing and be the result of labyrinthine characters that actually take 500 pages to set up, unlike Byatt’s facile, vapid, and inexplicable 800-page ramble.

In the end, the book was voyeuristic, childish, and obese, and I have no idea where the laudatory quotes on the back came from, or why it was so highly recommended in two separate publications. It took me 600 pages to decide for sure that I didn’t like it, and by then I had to finish it, but I urge everyone to avoid this book. Unless you’re trying to be bored. There is a scene of supreme irony where the liberated free-love man is giving a lecture on the state of the novel, and many of his criticisms end up applying to the novel he himself inhabits. The suppression of natural feelings, he says (comparable to, say, everyone’s obsession with sex to the exclusion of other, “natural” character traits), “in the end distorted both mind and body. And excluding them from the consideration of novelists distorted the novel, infantilised it, turned good fiction into bad lying.”

Excuse me while I go choke back bitter laughter.

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