The Children's Book, A. S. Byatt

This book is taking me a long time to read; I started it at the ashram two weeks ago and I'm still only just over half-finished. Perhaps it's unfair to comment before I reach the end. But I'm having a complicated reaction to this novel.

I should start by saying that I've always loved A.S. Byatt's writing. In my twenties, I adored Possession; I devoured the Frederica Potter quartet in greedy gulps (though by Babel Tower I was guiltily skimming some pages, and by Whistling Woman, not-so-guiltily.)

The Children's Book is crammed with detail: precise descriptions of what everyone wore to a party, and another party; what everyone saw at an exhibition and how they each reacted to it; moment by moment descriptions of puppet plays and lectures and what Tom saw in the woods. There are what seem like hundreds of characters, all with complicated relations to each other, those relations laid out in minute detail.

Once I was entranced and hypnotised by this dense layering; now, perhaps because I'm more pressed for time, I can't help thinking, oh just get on with the story! The story is solid and interesting; it doesn't need all this laborious research weighing it down. I'm glad and impressed that she has, obviously, done a great deal of research, and there's no doubt it's a rich book because of it. But I don't need to see it all laid out on the page (all 615 of them). Far be it from me to advise A.S. Byatt, but there are times when the author needs to know stuff that the reader doesn't need to know.

There's also (and Byatt has been quite explicit about this) an undercurrent of nastiness toward children's authors that I can't help resenting. (Weirdly, and as Misrule has noted before me, this nastiness has been echoed more than once on Radio National's The Book Show.) Now, I've met quite a few writers for children and young people and they all seem to be lovely, perfectly normal people. I'm sure they have their flaws, but none of them appear to be psychotic, or trapped in a perpetual irresponsible childhood, or exploitative and oppressive toward their own children, or escaping from reality, or driving their offspring to suicide.

Why is there this assumption that there's something inherently strange or dangerous about writing for children, or that we "can't grow up"? Have these authors and book-lovers forgotten that they themselves were introduced to literature by children's writers? Is it just pure snobbery?

This has turned into a rant, and I didn't intend it to be. I am truly torn between loving The Children's Book and wanting to hurl it across the room in frustration. Perhaps by the end I will have made up my mind. I'll let you know.


  1. It certainly is a very large book. A bit like an over-packed suitcase in many ways. I agree that research and background information does not always need to be in the foreground and there were times in this book where I felt that this was definitely the case. This book could easily have been three or four books and maybe that would have been a better outcome. I am very much from the 'less is more' school of thought and I also found myself getting frustrated with all the different layers of information packed into this book and I did skip a few sections - I wanted to get on with the story and not be dragged off on tangents. But when I did get to the end I felt a certain satisfaction at having finally finished this epic. I did thoroughly dislike the author/mother character but didn't read this in the context of a wider 'nastiness' towards children's authors - but then I'm not a children's author so probably wouldn't be so aware of this.

  2. I didn't realise you'd read this, Chris, we must discuss further some time! Well, I've finished it now and I think I too would have preferred three or four shorter books; or a tighter focus on one or two characters. I think Byatt bit off more than she could comfortably chew and the result was somewhat lumpy. Though I must say that I was more engaged by the second half than the first; but I don't think all the loose ends were tied up satisfactorily and there were a few characters left hanging. But I felt a sense of achievement when I got to the end, too!