Archive for the ‘The Children’s Book’ Tag

Who Didn’t Win the Booker, but I Read Anyway, Part Two

As I mentioned above, I also read The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, a previous Booker winner for Possession. This one took a lot longer to read, but was very enjoyable. One thing you need to remember about Byatt, there is a LOT of detail. Everything, in this case, ceramic pots and vessels, and German ventriloquist plays, gets the described down to the smallest piece. It’s like she’s showing you what an amazing writer she is, and she is, it’s not a criticism. Generally, the book looks at the Wellwood family’s life from the late 1800’s to the onset of World War I . Olive is a published children’s book writer who also writes a book for each of her five children. She and her husband Humphrey are Fabians and “progressive”, they have five children, of whom we really get to know only two. They put on Midsummer’s plays with progressive Germans who are also their son’s tutors before they go up to Oxbridge. Humphrey has a brother Basil whose family is much more straight-laced and Basil’s wife favors her Germanic heritage a little too much (as time will show). They have two children who are good friends with the hippie Wellwoods. Got it? Here’s where it gets tricky. There are two other families tied up in the tragedy that is to become the Wellwoods and World War I. The Cains, whose patriarch is Major Prosper Cain, a retired general who oversees what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum (I suppose you can see the next connection coming). Cain has two children, a boy who is almost definitely homosexual, and a girl that is good friends with Dorothy Wellwood (of the Hippie Wellwoods). There’s that connection to the Wellwoods, in addition to the fact that they all run in the same circles and participate in each other’s Midsummer cabals. Then, the Fludds. Benedict Fludd is a genius potter who is prone to fits of madness, screaming into the sea and often trying to drown himself. He has a quiet wife and three listless children, though one breaks free and works at a bank in London under the tutelage of Basil Wellwood (of the Anal Wellwoods). Following still?

At the beginning of the book, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood find a young man from the Potteries in the deep recesses of the soon-to-be V&A.  Philip, the young boy they find, is apprenticed to Benedict Fludd and all of their lives continue to intertwine, twist, begin and end. All this explanation was only to help you see how complex the relationships of the book are, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t figure out in the course of it all.  I think it really does reflect the kinds of relationships we have in reality. The different stages of knowing a person: recognizing a face, acquaintance, having coffee, spending a day, spending the night, seeing someone every other day, every other week, etc.  I don’t think that most books address that complexity.

In addition to that complexity, Byatt presents an idyllic, rural world that is shattered by so many things. Lies, cover-ups, willful delusions, refusing to grow up, growing up too fast, larger social movements that rock society at its core, and of course, the War. The scope of this book is massive, yet also a microcosm. It is general, yet so specific. You do feel as though you know these people. It is not that there is too much here, it is that there is too little. These are fully realized individuals who do exciting things, some that work and some that don’t, but that really makes them all the more human.