The Children’s Book

Since nothing seems to be happening at the moment and icy roads are preventing me from getting anywhere near Dublin, the only thing I’ve been doing over the past week and a half is reading. I’m quite happy with that, since it meant that I could finally read A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which has been taunting me since it came out earlier in 2009. I’ve read most of A.S. Byatt’s work, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The book that most people are familiar with is Possession, since it won the Booker Prize, but it’s actually not one of my favourites, as I don’t think that it shows Byatt to her best advantage. The one thing which I really dislike about Byatt’s work is her tendancy to introduce fictional poets and then provide extensive examples of their poetry, which she has fabricated herself. I find this slightly patronising, as I think it does a great injustice to people who are full-time poets, as well as demoting the achievements of the earlier poetic forms which she mimics. Anyway, Possession is FULL of Byatt’s poetry, which is the reason why I’ve never been a fan of that particular novel. But what I’m attempting to say, in a particularly roundabout manner, is don’t let any former bad experiences with Byatt put you off The Children’s Book. It’s brilliant, and I found it completely captivating.

The plots opens in the 1890s, in the last days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and it really provides an interesting overview of that era before the First World War. It documents the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, which later developed into Art Deco and Art Nouveau period that reached its height in the 1920s. What’s really fascinating is that way that it looks at the concept of childhood and children’s literature, which was at its peak during those years, and addresses the theme of innocence (and the loss of it) in a very powerful way. Byatt takes the idealized mode of living of the Pre-Raphaelites, the return to nature that was advocated by William Morris, and systematically exposes the flaws and brutality that underlie it as the novel progresses. It’s very well written, and even though Byatt does include a rather lengthy sample of imagined war poetry towards the end of it, it’s still one of the best new novels that I’ve read in a while, by an author who is at the very pinnacle of her writing career.

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