Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: The pains of growing up

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AS Byatt's The Children's Book, lately shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a mammoth of a novel, more sprawling than it perhaps should be in its 675 pages. It attempts to tell the story of a couple of families at the end of the Victorian age, all surrounding around the children's book writer Olive Wellwood. It's a time when the Fabian Society is starting and going strong, when women are fighting for their right to vote, as the English and the Boers are fighting a war in South Africa. Byatt bombards the reader with enough historical information about the goings-on that it sometimes feels more like a history textbook than a novel itself.

Olive Wellwood has a collection of children, but the only two that seem to matter are Tom - the eldest boy who seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of innocence and naivete - and Dorothy - a girl who does not see gender as a difference in any regard and fights to become a full-fledged doctor. Tom and Dorothea (and sometimes Olive) seem to have the only personalities in this work; they're the only ones that the narrator spends enough time developing and delving into. Otherwise the rest of the characters feel one-dimensional, as if a pastiche of the types that perhaps were living at the turn of the last century. She doesn't allow for their development, and just as they do become interesting characters, they're tossed aside to allow for more plain narratives to take their place. A character Julian is experimenting with sexuality, and as soon as that is mentioned, Dorothy's interest in medicine takes about 50 pages of description.

As the Wellwood children grow up, we experience the games they play, the lack of attention that they get from their mother, their bouts with different philosophical societies, and the invention of theatre and storytelling on their psyches. More often than not it feels like Byatt is showing off her vast knowledge of the timeperiod and needed to find a venue to expound on such ideas. And this is unfortunate, because in her story collections - The Djinn and the Nightingale's Eye and Little Black Book of Stories, for instance - she is an absolute master of the faerytale, of the enticing narrative. Here it's just a way to showcase the research and the names she can drop in order to entice readers to go on, to ask how JM Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, HG Wells, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and EM Forster will further the narrative. Sadly they won't.

What starts as a wonderful and drawing faerytale-esque narrative ends up being bogged down with bare, blunt, and boring descriptions of life between 1890-1919. The only thing that saves this narrative from total destruction at the end is the Great War, which ends with the destruction of most of the family members and the family structure; but by the time I got to that it already felt like a cliche, especially when one of the characters becomes a trench poet. It's a narrative about growing up, but the metaphors for growth are a bit hackneyed by the time you reach them that you'd rather stay with these characters whilst they're young.
At the very least though, as Byatt is good at doing, it's an interesting mix of literature, science, and art thrust together to form some sort of protean novel.

AS Byatt will be reading tonight at The Strand, 7.00pm.

4 comments:

Amy Reads Good Books said...

I have to admit that I feel like I should love Byatt, but I never really do. Perhaps it's because of all that description. :)

J.T. Oldfield said...

I'm occasionally horribly jealous of New yorkers, like when I remember that they have The Strand and then also because it seems like EVERY author goes and reads somewhere in New York.

Whatever. It doesn't snow in Seattle.

Diane said...

I had high hopes for this book, but most reviews seem just so so.

Salvatore said...

It was ultimately a disappointing novel, mostly because she really skimmed the surface; I think the thought that her narrator should act as a Greek chorus got away from her.

On the other hand though, she was wonderful to hear read, as her voice was the right timbre and had the right cadence to intrigue.