Friday, February 15, 2013

The Children's book (53rd book)

The Children's book by A.S. Byatt could have been so much better. I wanted to like this book, I really did, but it fell sadly short of what I hoped for. It potentially had everything I could want in a book, because it was filled with imagery and ideas that I love. It had magic which blended into reality, lots of beautiful things, and a study in the darker side of humanity. It's the execution that was lacking. I got bogged down somewhere in the middle of the book and let it sit on my bedside table for a year and a half. I would pick it up for small periods of time when I was in between books, hoping I would finish it at some point. It is on the list of 1001 books to read after all, and I refuse to give up on any of those. It was a long slog to finish it, but one that I am glad that I made, because the end is stellar, and made me want to love it. I give it only three stars however since it took me so long to read it.

The book is set in the period between Victorian England and Edwardian times and ends at the end of the First World War. It follows the Wellwood family and their varied connections through this period. The Wellwood's are part of a group of Fabians and their children are free to explore and play. The mother is a children's book writer and creates an individual volume for each of her children. These stories are incredible, and beautifully portrayed. The fairytale world that they live in however, is covering up a vast array of secrets and confusing inter-familial relationships. The family is on the brink of falling apart, and the cracks begin to show. One of the kids make this discovery and utters this philosophical line, "If you find out your parents weren't your parents, would you be a different person?"

The family  is connected to another family called the Fludd's who are potters and the description of the works they create sound absolutely beautiful. The fantastical elements portrayed in the clay sound mysterious and beautiful. The book is filled with the lovely elements of art and story. I was enamoured with the description of all the artistic people and their creations: puppets, pottery, the Gloucester Candlestick in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the plays they perform. The book also includes several real works of fiction that were created around this time including the play Peter Pan and varying poets and works of art. I loved this reference to a poem of the period. "Love is a standing, or still growing light"

What bogged me down was the historical elements of the story. The author makes an effort to tie in historical pieces to the story that tell you what was current and interesting to the people of the society around this time. These descriptions although fascinating for their historical value and picture of a different life, make the story slow and bogged down. They are not blended into the magical elements of the story, and stand out like sore thumbs amidst the more fluid elements of the story.

This ideas in this novel definitely fit with mine, however. There were many points in the story where I would get very excited by things that varying characters in the novel said. Since one of the main characters is a writer there are a lot of references to what role stories play in our life. One of the daughters Griselda, sets out to study fairytales at university to figure out what themes emerge from them. Here are a few things she says about her studies. "It's really the ways in which fairy tales aren't myths that interest me" and "They work according to some sort of rules and I'd like to work out what they are". I have always been a huge fan of the idea that fairy tales convey deep truth. It is one of the reasons why I chose this book early on in reading books from the list of 1001 because I felt I would like the ideas in it.

Lastly, although the historical parts bogged down the book, there were a few interesting moments for me in it. The status of women was very clearly portrayed through this book. The suffragette movement was depicted in all it's gruesome details, as was the fact that women couldn't study for full degrees at universities. One of the women in the book gets pregnant out of wedlock and it is clear that her fate is horribly changed by this mistake. The other thing that was very clearly portrayed was the horror of the first world war. It devastated many of the characters in the book, and was very accurately portrayed in all its messiness and horror. I have always had a trauma response to the First World War and can cry at a drop of a hat with the least mention of it. I was a mess as I read the last section of the novel. Fortunately for me my boyfriend was here to comfort me or I might stepped away from the novel altogether. I was most struck by the fact that a generation of men was decimated by the war.

Although the book has a low rating, I did enjoy large parts of the book. It took me a lot of weighing to give the book a rating out of five stars, because I so badly wanted to like it. In the end I decided that the fact that I got lost in the middle was fact enough that I couldn't rate it higher.

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