Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Book Review: The Children's Book

The Children's BookThe Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Possibly this is not the best introduction to A.S. Byatt, who is an award-winning novelist. Indeed, this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This fact, however, only adds fuel to the suspicions of many (myself included) that the Booker Prize is a closed shop. In fact, Byatt won the prize in 1990 for Possession. No surprises there, then.

Byatt is, of course, a beloved literary national treasure in the UK. This being my first foray, I expected much. I will say this: the woman can research. Holy Jesus, can she research.

Briefly, the story follows a handful of avant-garde politico-artistic families in fin-de-siecle London & Kent as they navigate the changes in social mores from the Victorian era to the Edwardian one and into the First World War. The characters are numerous, and they are all essentially anarchists, socialists, communists -- the fact is, most of them aren't totally sure, but they try them all on for size. Which is quite human of them, really. There are parents and children, and various tangled love affairs, as well as the usual parent-child betrayal when the child discovers the parent is not a golden hero, but a real person. There are some lovely images of the countryside, and some excellent character developments.

There are, however, a few foibles that frankly drove me crazy. They are little bits that for me, in any case, make me feel that Byatt, after 50-ish years of publishing well-received novels, still feels like she has to prove that she's actually, like, a totally creative thinker? And, like, maybe not everyone will get it, but, like, that just proves how good she is? I thought for sure she was a MUCH younger author, let's put it that way.

1) (Because I love me a list) She affects an annoying little signature stylistic motif that serves no purpose whatsoever EXCEPT to remind you that you're reading a book by A.S. Byatt. It is that in a section of text, when a person is about to speak, instead of doing it the conventional way that everyone is taught and understands, like this: "Jenny said, 'Gee, A.S. Why do you have to be so annoying?'" She does it like this: "Jenny said

'Gee, A.S. Why do you have to be so annoying?'"


2) Look, make no mistake. I value a novel that is well-researched, and this is. But there are some moments, a lot of moments, when I felt like she was including information just BECAUSE she researched it. I get that she was trying to show how tumultuous society was at the time by highlighting lots of examples of the crazy tactics of anarchists, suffragists, bolsheviks, etc etc. But there was so much. So so so much. There were pages and pages of it that I finally just skipped because it stopped adding any value to the story. It may be an absurd standard, but if you want to know how to do a well-researched historical novel, read Tolstoy. He's like the Coco Chanel of historical research -- he always takes off the last accessory he puts on. He doesn't clutter his writing with a billion examples or include juicy tidbits just because he thinks they're too interesting to leave out. He only includes the bits that matter to the NOVEL.

3) She frequently drops in phrases in other languages (French, German, Latin) without bothering to provide a translation or even a gist of meaning. This is annoying. She perhaps wants to believe her audience is learned and multi-lingual, but it just smacks of elitism. Not all of us went to boarding school in the Fifties, Byatt.

4) Occasionally she uses words or phrases that are just unnecessary. This sounds very nitpicky, but it's really just good editing. At one point, instead of using the word "globe," she says "globuar world." She definitely means globe in the context. This kind of thing is probably more her editor's fault, but as she has been in the game so long, she probably doesn't get a very heavy edit, one imagines.

Ok, I've been harsh. The book isn't bad, it just has some bad elements. I would like to believe other Byatt novels are better, and I would definitely consider another.

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