Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: "The Children's Book"

A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (Knopf, 2009) is a luxurious epic of a book, chronicling the lives of an impressive array of children (at least thirteen), their parents and various hangers-on from the late Victorian period through the end the First World War. Over the course of the book the children go through the usual processes of growing up, but for this bunch that includes some pretty serious complications.

The families, whose paths cross in interesting ways throughout the book, are all involved in some way with the crafts movement of the period (pottery, book production, theater, &c.), as well as the political goings-on (socialism, suffragism and so forth). Byatt expertly integrates the history of the period with her narrative, and seamlessly inserts her characters into the real-world milieu. The fantasy worlds she creates, in all their creepy possibility (and some of the plot-lines she pursues really are disturbing) are remarkable.

This is a truly rich book, but the number of characters Byatt introduces and documents is staggering, and I found it difficult at times to keep track of them all. The meandering nature of the text sometimes seems a bit much, and there were times when I needed something more fast-paced - but overall (and, I must say, especially the last third of the book and the gut-wrenching treatment of World War I) this is a real achievement.

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