No zing in Byatt’s rather stolid saga

2009-09-09 00:00


The Children’s Book

A. S. Byatt

Chatto and Windus

WHILE A. S. Byatt’s latest novel, The Children’s Book, set in England and Europe between 1895 and 1918, is of considerable interest for the ­social, political and artistic ­movements that it examines, it is ­ultimately a disappointment.

It is overcrowded (masses of fictional characters sharing space with historical figures); overworded (the novel runs to a dense 615 pages); and, to use a word that Byatt herself employs with conspicuous frequency, stolid. The novel just doesn’t zing. Given the material, it ought to.

The children of a range of parents — capitalists, socialists, artists, writers, craftsmen and the marginalised impecunious — are adults by 1914. The young men are destined to ­descend into the trenches, the precursors of graves. Before that, they wrestle with schooling, career choices, sexuality, personal issues and the public isms and ­illusions of the period.

Lurking in a shadowy way among them is the beautiful Rupert Brooke, attending lectures and meetings at Cambridge and plays in London, writing poetry and eventually setting off, with considerable idealism, to meet his death on the Greek island of Skyros in 1915.

And the young women — some of whom also see war service, essentially in the medical field — grow to self-awareness in a world where university education is opening to them, suffragism is a dynamic force and the fictional Herbert Methley is advocating sexual freedom in his frequently banned novels.

Central to Byatt’s novel is the character, Olive Wellwood, a woman of working-class origins who has ­improved her status by marrying, is the mother of numerous offspring, an authority on British Fairy Lore and the writer of fairytales.

Several of these are works in progress for her own children and one is converted into an innovative play, attended on its opening night in 1909 by Byatt’s fictional ensemble along with the real life figures of George Bernard Shaw and J. M. Barrie, whose Peter Pan had premiered in 1904.

Talented and tormented individuals — fictional and actual — from all walks of life abound in Byatt’s saga and the novel affords her the opportunity to showcase her detailed ­research and understanding of the period.

Perhaps there is too much detail — sometimes presented in chunks, like academic asides. Certainly, there are too many people. And the result is curiously bloodless.

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