Saturday, October 24, 2009
THE CHILDREN'S BOOK - A.S. Byatt
Nominated for the 2009 Man Booker prize for fiction, The Children's Book is written for fans of epic drama; in this case, the Wellwood family and its friends during the years 1890-WWI.
Philip Warren, a runaway found by Olive Wellwood's son in the South Kensington Museum, states that he, "[...]wants to make..." Looking at pages of his drawings, Olive assumes he wants to make pots, and he is sent to apprentice with a famed friend. However, it is Philip who is the steadying character in this novel.
The Wellwoods are enchanting with a lovely English home called Todefright in the country and loads of children to fill it. Olive writes children's stories, while continuing to write a personal story for each of her own children. Humphrey, the father, works in banking and trashes it in his publications under a pseudonym. They host ravishing parties and invite the most radical of their circle.
However, not all is as misty and magical as it seems. Daughter Dorothy and son Tom worry about their parents' fights. Their cousins worry about boarding school or the lack of education for females. The younger Wellwood children are simply mothered by their aunt Violet.
As children do, they grow up and expand into lives that even creative Olive could not have predicted. In fact, this was the most satisfying part of the book - the first 120 pages were devoted to knowing the huge background of players. The ending left many threads hanging loose from the tapestry, which I appreciated.
I almost gave up on this book. It was difficult to plow through the names, the characterizations, the histories. Once the fairytale gave way to the truth, I became fascinated. It was ugly and raw, but the polite English way of dealing with pain made me wonder at how they survived loss or disappointment. Especially Olive, with her proper endings to each story.
Why did this novel not win the Man Booker? Perhaps because of the beginning. The writing could easily bore some readers who are not interested in the nuances of the characters' actions or dialogue. It could have been too long. Still, I think it became a finalist for these same reasons. It is a novel that I will think about for a while, and that is always considered valuable in my experience.
4.25 out of 5.0 Milk Punch.