Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

About 140 pages from the end of this 675-page masterpiece – short-listed for the 2009 Booker Prize -- Byatt wrote, “They seem to me like coloured mosaics, with separate little pieces that fit together” (536). This perfectly describes this complicated, funny, sad, absorbing, sprawling story, which Byatt has skillfully interwoven with numerous historical events and figures: from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Asquith, Kaiser Willhem, King Edward V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Queen Victoria, from the Fabian’s and anarchists of the late 19th century, to the last days of World War I.

If I pulled any one of the dozens of quotes I underlined, they would only provide a tantalizing glimpse of the whole – as if I held up a single piece of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful picture!” You simply have to read this novel and immerse yourself in this fantastic world created by the Booker Prize winner for Possession in 1990. I had the good fortune to meet A.S. Byatt at Baylor University when I was a grad student there. She delivered the Virginia Beall Lecture on Literature in 1994. She also sat in on a class I was taking – British Women Writers. Meeting her was one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. Her insights on writing, reading, and other English Women writers were priceless.

The Children’s Story revolves around five families. Basil Wellwood, a wealthy conservative banker and his wife, Katharina, and their two children; Basil’s brother Humphry Wellwood, also a banker – at first – and his wife Olive, a writer of children’s tales, and their eight children; Prosper Cain, widower and curator of a major museum in London, and his two children; Benedict Fludd, master potter, and his wife Seraphita and their three children; and, lastly, Phillip and Elise, orphans of poor working people.

Humphry and Olive give a “Midsummer Party,” and Byatt describes the attendees. “Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays in converted cottages and old farmhouses…the children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to…They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks” (31). These progressives had radical views on everything from raising children to women’s suffrage.

Byatt presents this foundational information and weaves a tale spanning about 30 years. Imagine the parties, the family crises, the current events, the intermingling of all these children with the arts – writing, painting, pottery, music, reading, education, the theater – well, you get the idea.

The most amazing thing is the fluid and beautiful prose Byatt has given the reader. If Possession has a revered place in your library and reading history -- and it should! -- you will become immersed in this marvelous story. The surprising and inevitable, shocking and unexpected endings will not fail to disappoint.

I would like to offer some tips which might make this a more enjoyable read. Make family trees of the five families and refer to it frequently. The children travel, party, and visit together frequently, and this helps keep the relationships in order. Also, I wish I had a detailed map of England in and around London, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Dungeness so I could follow the travels of these characters. One of my top reads of the year – 10 stars out of five.

--Chiron, 4/20/10

No comments: