I love A.S. Byatt’s work. She writes “literary fiction”—this being on one hand a catchall phrase for any book that doesn’t fit conveniently into a genre designation, and on the other, a term that generally implies particularly good writing, often accompanied by unique insight and acute perception. Byatt’s got all of this, in spades. (Some of you might remember her earlier book, POSSESSION: A Romance. (One British friend told me he’d picked up a copy of this in the library, to find that an earlier reader had penciled a helpful message on the title page: “They finally do it on page 572.” I mention this in case you too might find it helpful.))
She also writes books in which terrifically interesting things happen—not always a hallmark of literary fiction [g]. THE CHILDREN’S BOOK is a wonderful creation, set during the transition between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, which encompasses the flowering romanticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England (I found this part particularly fascinating, as my great-great-grandfather was an artist who was part of this movement), the political upheavals of suffragism, socialism, and anarchy, and the onrush of the First World War.
Now, whatever the theme, setting, and plot of a book, the really important thing is the character(s) who carry it out. And I tell you what: few people do better characters than Byatt does. Her people are remarkably multi-faceted, complex, interesting, and _real_. She knows what artists are like, and captures a range of them—the central egotism and ruthlessness of character that makes a good one, the helplessness of a failed artist, the mutual jealousy between the commercially successful and the unsuccessful but “pure” artist.
The story—or stories; there are many of them—center on an unorthodox family and its friends. Olive Wellwood is a writer—a very successful writer, whose huge family provides her with both impetus and material. The “children’s book” of the title refers not to a single book, but to the private stories—one for each child—that she maintains in notebooks, adding to each one as inspiration comes. The way in which love works—supportive, exploitative, pragmatic, idealistic, romantic, familial, jealousy, selflessness, free love, marriage—is at the core of the novel (as it is at the core of most great books).
At the same time, it’s a wonderful exploration and dissection of a society—the British middle-class—in a time of intellectual ferment and unprecedented political change. AND written with an exquisite eye for detail and tremendous lyrical energy. Here’s a brief excerpt of the text:
THE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Copyright © 2009 by A.S. Byatt
“Hedda lay in the long grass, with her skirt rucked up above her knickers, and her lengthening brown legs stretched out. She was fortunate not to have hay fever, as Phyllis did. She was not exactly reading _The Golden Age_. I am a snake in the grass, she thought, a secret snake. Violet was sitting on the roughly mown grass in the orchard, at some distance, in a low wicker armchair, sewing. Hedda spent a lot of time spying on Violet, as a revenge for the fact that Violet spied on her, going through her private drawers and notebooks. Hedda, like Phyllis, was perpetually agitated by being left out of the group of older children, Tom and Dorothy, Charles and Griselda, and now Geraint. But whereas Phyllis was plaintive, Hedda was enraged. She was the traitor in all tales of chivalry and in myths. She was Vivien, she was Morgan Le Fay, she was Loki. She despised the cow-eyed and the gentle, Elaine the lily maid, faithful Psyche, Baldur’s weeping wife, Nanna. She was a detective, who saw through appearances. No one was as nice as they seemed, was her rule of judging characters. She was the darkest of the children, with long black hair and very solid black brows, drawn in a frown more often than not, and long, black lashes which in themselves were beautiful, especially when she was asleep. She had no one to talk to about her investigations. Phyllis was an idiot. Florian was a baby. She had had hopes of Pomona, but Pomona was an idiot, too, of the same kind as Phyllis. Dorothy was who she hated, because she was older, and in the way, and got things Hedda didn’t get. And because she had Griselda, and they were together, and Hedda had no one. But Dorothy didn’t know what Hedda knew, or partly knew.”
Much as I love series, with the possibilities of ever-evolving characters and the charm of renewed acquaintance, I love one-of-a-kind treasures like this just as much. Highly engrossing, highly recommended!