Really, it would be 4 stars if it were just about the writing. The prose is beautiful here; there are striking passages of luminous prose. Moreover, i...moreReally, it would be 4 stars if it were just about the writing. The prose is beautiful here; there are striking passages of luminous prose. Moreover, it is clear that Atwood has done a scholar's amount of research into Victorian life and ways in North America. The entire work is suffused with a deep understanding of 19th century Canadian life.
But my ultimate verdict is 3 stars because of the "longeurs" in the story and a general sense that the novel should have been edited down considerably. The plot takes a long time to take off, and the denouement is also padded. And the plot turnings were more often disappointing than not.(less)
An English "War and Peace" - although "Peace and War" would be more apt, as the vast majority of the text is set in the halycon days of the late 19th...moreAn English "War and Peace" - although "Peace and War" would be more apt, as the vast majority of the text is set in the halycon days of the late 19th and 20th Century British Empire, when the confidence and prosperity of the ruling classes went unchallenged. "The Children's Book" deals mostly with the comfortable lives of the upper middle classes in the South of England, although Byatt (who is a Northerner herself) throws in a few working class characters for contrast. Messy and prolix, "The Children's Book" is a book that is intelligent and provocative, but also frustrating and inconclusive. Fans of Byatt will read it to find out what she is thinking these days, but I would not recommend this book as a first exposure to her writing.
Byatt, whose sister Margaret Drabble is also a successful novelist, certainly knows a great deal about unhappy families with sibling rivalries. She also has clearly been thinking a lot about the significance of children's literature, particularly in the English tradition of the late 19th century. (She has gone on record with some fairly harsh criticism of J.K. Rowling's contemporary work in that genre.) In some ways, "The Children's Book" is a kind of serious reflection upon the lure of childish-ness which attracted so many in the era of Peter Pan - and continues to do so in our era of the Disney Empire and Harry Potter.
Rather than focus upon a single character - or even two, or four - here Byatt is interested upon an entire generation of young people, born in the 1880s and 90s and raised in the heyday of the late Victorian Empire. It's a collective family saga - and you'll probably need to take copious notes to sort out all the characters and their intricate relationships. (It doesn't help matters when several of their names are similar - Geraint and Gerald, for example. Some of the names seem fairly improbable: Griselda? Imogen? Perdita?)
There is also a great deal in this book about some of the "minor" arts of the era, particularly ceramics and puppetry. Interesting certainly, but I'm not sure quite how the developing craft of pottery fits into the theme of childhood and family relationships.
A few major historical figures from the period (Oscar Wilde, Marie Stopes, Loie Fuller) have small walk-on parts. There is one scene of the novel that takes place at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, and later the focus shifts for a while to artistic and bohemian Munich. Nice to see an English historical novel with some interest in contemporary European affairs! Some of the characters are early stalwarts of the movement for women's rights. One becomes a female doctor, another a suffragette. Other female characters face difficult decisions about sexuality, pregnancy and marriage. Really, this could be a quite good book to use in a history class - if only it weren't so long!
It is difficult to offer a coherent critique of this book because it goes off in so many directions. A loose baggy monster indeed! It probably would have worked better if some of the subsidiary characters and plots and themes and historical developments had been cut back - or cut out. Or maybe this should have become a multi-volume saga! There are certainly enough elements in the story that remind me of one of those stately Masterpiece Theatre series!(less)
Beautifully written and ingenuously plotted, but unflinching in depiction of poverty, communal violence, and corruption in 1970s India. And it's long....moreBeautifully written and ingenuously plotted, but unflinching in depiction of poverty, communal violence, and corruption in 1970s India. And it's long. The ending didn't satisfy me either. "A Fine Balance" was Mistry's second novel, and a Booker Prize nominee, and it does make me interested in read other works by this author.(less)