Thursday, 4 February 2010

Review: 'The Children's Book' by A. S. Byatt.

I have had a great fondness for A. S. Byatt ever since reading her glorious book Possession: A Love Story on a postmodernism module back in my undergraduate days. It was on the reading list and it was the fattest paperback I had seen in a long time, which was guaranteed to make undergrads groan! We were all keen to open our reading lists to see SLIM paperbacks. It seemed an arduous task given the thickness of the book, the smallness of the text and the time constraints of a very demanding module! But it turned out to be nothing but sumptuous pleasure.

Byatt writes with a erudition that is lacking in a lot of modern novels. She has a capacity to seamlessly blend the here and now with the then and there, captivating her readers along the way. Byatt's ability to mix fantasy, fact and character with the intertextual use of myth, poetry and story telling is a rare and enviable skill in a writer.

The Children's Book is as equally delightful and captivating as Possession, similarly using history as the vertebrae for her plot. The pages burst with key period figures and integrates historical movements such as Fabianism, with personal context, putting flesh and bone on the dry and dusty figures that have become part and parcel of our cultural legacy. The imaginary rub shoulders with contemporaneous celebrity, giving the story a vitality and presence that is often lacking in historicised fiction. Byatt treats the period with a great deal of respect and gravitas. The emotional turmoil felt by many women during this era is replayed through several female characters, all of whom felt the pressure of a bifurcated life, the schism between professional and personal desire.

Sex of course, just as in 1900, is a key feature as the complexities of familial and desirous relationships are confronted, mistakes are made and illegitimate children are created, much to the chagrin of the male protagonists involved. As a history of gender the book gives a fair account, never generalising, never assuming, but always bringing it down to the nuanced and complicated internalised feelings of the individual regardless of their sex. You will find no cliched characters within these pages.

I have loved every single syllable of Byatt's latest novel, chewing every ounce of juice out of each wordy morsel. It has been a revelation to me as this is the era in which I work and these are the concepts with which I juggle. She has blown the dust off suffrage, with vivid descriptions and intelligent arguments, always bringing the matter down to the individual; Byatt exposes the social herd for the myth it is. The use of the phantasmagorical, as in Possession gives the text a potent allegorical strength as the characters lives are played out in narrative and fairytale.

For anyone who loves intelligent literature, this book is a definite read.

Next on the cards: Mark Gatiss and The Lucifer Box Set which attracted me because of its Yellow Book cover and Beardsleyesque illustrations. Yummy!  

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