I was completely enchanted by A.S. Byatt’s Possession when I read it a year ago. One of it’s most beautiful lines was featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife and I wanted to read the book that hosted it. After finishing it, I felt so accomplished and saved the thought of reading other works by Byatt for when I was feeling brave again. Well, after finishing the three Allen books so vehemently, I decided it was time for The Children’s Book. Reading the 700 pages of Byatt’s detail oriented story was going to be a small feat for me, but I somewhat managed in the twenty days I allotted myself.
The novel began with promise. Olive Wellwood is a writer who weaves fairy-tales not only for income but as a secret bond between herself and each of her children, including Tom and Dorothy, her eldest. Phillip Warren is a runaway who has taken shelter in the basement of the museum where Julian Cain’s father works. Benedict Fludd is a troubled potter and father who makes beautiful and frightening things. In the late 1800s, all of these lives are growing and changing in radical ways. To crown the innocence of this period, Olive hosts a Midsummer’s Eve party where the children frolic in the lawn, run through the wood, and enchant themselves with their independence and friendships. The adults speak to each other about politics and freedom and ask their young ones what they want to be when they grow up. The molds of their futures are set.
I had the thought, before reading this novel, that it was going to hold much of the same story-telling qualities as Possession, in which A.S. Byatt devoted chunks and chapters to the correspondence and poems of two of the main characters. I loved the idea of being lost in stories within a story, and hoped that Olive’s books for each of her children would be written in full within the format. That was not the case. There were only a few fiction works included; only one of Olive’s children’s books was ever heavily touched. And that was Tom’s.
Something I was not prepared for was the amount of sexual content in this book. Lots of words, too many in my opinion, were devoted to detailing people’s “bushes.” Like that really supplements the content!! Too many extramarital affairs, children out-of-wedlock, children not knowing who their real parents are, children being sexually abused by their parents…and also, too many older men taking away young girls’ virginity. I, for one, had enough of the disgusting fatherly love in Volver…but of course that came much later than this book.
Aside from that, this book did not engage me. I had a very hard time staying awake for it, to be honest. And with a personal reading assignment of thirty pages a day, falling asleep three pages in made that a challenge. I haven’t speed-read this much since high school; but after 500 pages of diligent reading, I don’t have any hard feelings about the last 200. There was just so much history. And ending with World War I was pretty dismal.
A shortened version of The Children’s Book would go a little like this: There are these families in England that keep having kids. Some of the kids grow up to be molested and some go to school. Some go to school and then drop out because old men impregnate them. The old men in these families don’t have any personal restraint, so they become new fathers at the same time they are becoming grandfathers. Some people are so troubled they commit suicide. Then all the young men are sent to war and die. The end.
I’m not kidding.
I understand the amount of effort that went into making this book. It had intricate historical detail that I know Byatt could not fake. And I consider writing 700 pages an accomplishment. I do have a favorite line from the novel, and I rather liked reading the perspectives of Phillip, Tom, and Julian (when they were young). But overall, it wasn’t for me. The Children’s Book weaves a complicated web filled with fancy and reality, but overloads the reader with abandon.