The stories in the books were, in their nature, endless. They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit onto the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning. There were tributary plots, that joined the mainstream again, further on, further in.
These four sentences refer to the books that Olive Wellwood, the fictional children’s author at the center of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, writes for her children. But they could just as easily apply to Byatt’s own doorstop of a novel. The book is filled with stories that overlap and coil but then wind away from the primary stream. Even the overdone metaphors in the passage (segmented worms with hooks and eyes?) somehow capture the nature of Byatt’s story. Byatt’s loving, but critical tribute to the social and artistic scene in late-19th and early 20th-century England is like taking a full immersion course in the period. Whether this is a good thing will depend on the reader.
The book focuses on multiple, interlocked families populated with artists, writers, and free thinkers. Over the course of the novel, the children of these families grow from small children who revel in the plays and stories their parents put on at their regular gatherings to become adults who must cope with the all-to-real drama going on behind closed doors—dramas that in some cases erupt into all-out war.
When the book begins, the parents seem to exist in a state of innocence. They are doing as they please, having just as much fun as the children, albeit in adult ways. It is only as time passes, and the children start to react to their parents’ behavior, that the consequences of living outside society’s rules begin to take their toll. Hopping from bed to bed is not a neutral, innocent action, especially not when children are the result—or the victims.
One of the recurring themes of the book is the idea of story and of the interaction between writer, characters, and audience. The writer appears to have control, but the characters are the ones that actually have life in the story world. For me, one of the most interesting motifs in this thread is that of the marionette:
Marionettes … are creatures of the upper air, like elves, like sylphs, who barely touch the ground. They dance in geometric perfection in a world more intense, less hobbledehoy, than our own. Heinrich von Kleist, in a suggestive and mysterious essay, claims daringly that these figures perform more perfectly than human actors. They exhibit the laws of movement their limbs rise and fall in perfect arcs, according to the laws of physics. They have—unlike human actors—no need to charm, or to exact sympathy.
There’s a sense in which the characters of the parents’ generation seem to want people to act as marionettes. Provide the right environment—pull the right strings—and they will. But unlike marionettes, people walk on the ground in a hobbledehoy world. What’s more, the people will cry out for the freedom to choose. Nowhere is this more clear than in Olive’s compelling little story titled “The People in the House in the House,” probably my favorite of Olive’s stories that appear in the book. It beautifully illustrates the tension the impossibility of fully controlling others, and the way in which we are all under someone else’s control.
The Children’s Book has divided some of my favorite bloggers, with some adoring it, others loathing it, and some falling in between. It’s definitely not the masterpiece of lean, but complex storytelling that Possession is. There’s a narrative drive to Possession that The Children’s Book simply does not have. The Children’s Book is more about atmosphere and mood. The plot and characters emerge slowly, too slowly for some. For the first 200 pages or so, hardly anything happens, and only a handful of the characters stand out as individuals, partly because we meet so many of them in rapid succession. (This problem was exacerbated for me by the fact that I was reading on an e-reader and couldn’t easily flip back to jog my memory when characters reappeared.)
Instead of plot and character, we’re treated (subjected?) to lengthy descriptions of pottery and plays. Once the story takes off and the characters take shape, Byatt is able to draw a character into the corner of society that she wishes to explore, whether it’s women’s suffrage or Peter Pan, but with such a large cast, the novel does start to sprawl. Personally, I’m fascinated by this era, and I was absolutely mesmerized by the detail and the narrative excurses—perhaps even more so because I’ve read very little about late Victorian and Edwardian art and culture. (For good or for ill, my literature classes in college tended to focus entirely on the literary works themselves, with little discussion of their cultural milieu.) But would I have missed some of these narrative tributaries if they were gone? Probably not.
Despite its lack of leanness, I did enjoy this book. For me, there’s nothing better than a book I can sink myself into, and I sunk into this book. What’s not to love about that?