Review: The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt

Have you heard of this book? It is as long as the prime meridian. I am not even lying. It follows several families of (mostly) forward-thinking artists and businesspeople from the late 1890s to the early part of the First World War. It is eight trillion pages of thick, lush prose, and if a book blogger found, as she drew closer to the end, that she simply could not bear to wade through the war poetry of a character she never felt lived up to his full potential of interestingness, well, you can understand how that would happen.

I sound crabby now, but I did not begin this way. A.S. Byatt won my heart early. She did it thus:

He believed Lord Rosebery’s name had been mentioned in the sad events surrounding the recent trial. It had been rumoured that the sad death of Lord Queensberry’s eldest son — not Lord Alfred Douglas, but Lord Drumlanrig — had been not a shooting accident but an act of self-destruction, designed — they did say — to protect Lord Rosebery’s good name?

This was indeed rumoured about poor Francis. (Lord Queensberry’s father also died in a “hunting accident” that was believed to be a suicide. Do you think that’s where Francis got the idea from? Or was this just standard practice amongst suicidal peers of the realm?) I do not know that I buy into the story that Lord Queensberry used this rumour to blackmail the government into prosecuting Oscar Wilde to the full extene of the law. I think he believed it, but of course he didn’t need to think someone was screwing his son in order to call them “Jew queer” in letters. Oh, Marquess of Queensberry.

Then I got a bit bogged down in how many characters there were. They all get introduced at the same time, at a Midsummer’s party hosted by the (arguably) main characters. There are so many characters. There are fifty thousand characters. But at the beginning, I was okay with it. At the beginning, I was interested in finding out what was going to happen to these characters, how the network of relationships was going to develop and change as the years went by. I loved Philip, the young artist caught sleeping in and taking sketches at the museum at the very beginning, and I loved how taking him creating a whole series of fresh new relationships with different gender and age and class dynamics. I loved Dorothy for deciding she wanted to be a doctor, and I thought Tom had serious potential as a very cool character.

At a certain point, however, I got frustrated. In part, I was frustrated that the children all got split up, and I didn’t get to see their relationships growing. That wasn’t the main thing though. I can pinpoint the moment at which I stopped loving the book and started wishing A.S. Byatt would get on with it. It was when Tom left school and became suddenly all gamekeepery and bucolic. I wanted to slap him, and every time he showed up again, I wanted to slap him harder.

But Byatt was wonderful at times:

“It is a terrible thing to be a woman. You are told people like to look at you — as though you have a duty to be the object of…the object of…And then, afterwards, if you are rejected, if what you…thought you were worth…is after all not wanted…you are nothing.”

She gave a little shrug, and pulled herself together, and said “Poor Elsie,” in an artificial, polite, tea-party voice, though she had not offered, and did not offer, to make tea.

Moments like this came close to making up for Byatt’s intense long-windedness, aggravating gamekeeper character Tom, and determination to throw into her book every Victorian thing except the Victorian kitchen sink. It isn’t that I object to a cameo by Oscar Wilde, even a cameo where he is pathetic and wretched; but toward the end of the book, I got tired of so many Victorian and Edwardian figures showing up and strolling around for no particular reason.

I need to go back and reread Possession. I didn’t read the poetry in that one either, but it had a very compelling plot that kept me absolutely enthralled all through the novel, rather than through only half of it like The Children’s Book. Sigh. Well, anyway, this highly ambivalent review brought to you by the clash of my love of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with a horrific preponderance of deathless prose and a small but significant number of missed emotional beats.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Book Snob
Farm Lane Books Blog
Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
Vulpes Libris
The Indextrious Reader
books i done read
Cornflower Books
Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog

Let me know if I missed yours!

  • Nicely reviewed. I think I would be totally with you on this one!

    • IT IS SO LONG. But it had good qualities too.

  • Simcha

    I’ve been on the fence about reading this book. I had heard a raving review of it from my favorite book podcast but then I read some reviews of it that said it’s rather long-winded and takes some patience to get through, which I don’t usually have as a reader. I think after reading your review I’ll probably be passing it over.

    • It is long-winded and requires patience. That doesn’t mean it’s got no enjoyable qualities! But yeah, you should have plenty of time to sit down with it, if you’re going to try it.

  • I read this right after it came out (pre-blogging days) and had to force myself to finish it. There were flashes of brilliance but overall I’ll just remember it as the book with 10,000 characters to whom nothing ever happens. Very big on descriptions, not so much on plot or character development.

    • Flashes of brilliance is a good way of describing it. There were moments I just loved, thick and fast at the beginning and less frequently as the book went on.

  • You’ve reminded me that I need to read Possession. I have a copy here and for some reason have failed to pick the copy up and read it — I’ve been meaning to for years!

    • Oh my gosh, it’s so good. It’s been something like five years now since I read it (or longer, probably), but I remember being completely sucked in to it. I couldn’t put it down for two days.

  • I haven’t read it yet, partly because anything I’ve read by A.S. Byatt strikes me that way: Bits of brilliance, and then lots of very self-conscious meta-storytelling that I get bogged down in.

    • You didn’t like Possession? Sadness!

      • Missed this earlier!

        I do like Possession–mostly. Not entirely. There’s a story in there, and there’s a very self-conscious story-telling that sometimes gets in the way.

  • I loved Possession, but very much suspect I would react to this one as you did. It sounds like yet another case of a proven novelist needing a good editor.

    • I don’t know that an editor would have helped. There were aspects of the story that I found distasteful and weird and random, but they were kinda central to the plot, so I don’t know that Byatt could have dispensed with them.

  • Mumsy

    “Long as the prime meridian,” “eight trillion pages of thick, lush prose,”….you make me laugh. And also, you make me definitely take this one off my TBR list. (Just kidding! It was never actually on my TBR list. Possession was, though.)

    • Don’t take Possession off. It’s good! And I’m pretty sure I left it!

  • I just picked up Possession this week and am impatient to get to it…I’ve heard such great things!

    • They’re all true! It’s so good. Don’t feel guilty if you skip the poetry — everyone skips the poetry.

  • I adored Possession and thought The Biographer’s Tale was only sort of okay, so I’m counting on this book to tell me whether I’m a Byatt fan or not. Long as the Prime Meridian could be a good thing, but not if long equals bloated. Despite its length, Possession had a nice lean storyline with two central characters per time line. Sounds like that might not be the case here.

    And I’m laughing at the Oscar Wilde cameo. I’ve been grumbling to myself at how the Morland Dynasty series I’ve been reading for the last two years has been extremely light on the cameos by literary figures. In the book I just finished, a literary figure finally shows up, and of course it had to be Oscar Wilde!

    • I don’t know what happened halfway through the book — long didn’t feel AT ALL bloated for the first half. The second half got boring. I think it’s a case of interesting characters not hanging out together.

      What was the book? Was it Guernsey Literary Potato Food Book? Oscar Wilde is all up in there.

      • The book was The Homecoming by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. One of the characters became part of Wilde’s social circle. I forgot that he was in that Guernsey book. He gets around, that Oscar.

  • I bought this book for my birthday, but am actually a little scared of it. I loved Possession, but what if I don’t love this book as well? It sounds like there is an awful lot of stuff going on here, and I am not sure I would like hundreds of characters clogging up the cogs. I am not sure when I will read this, but when I do, it will be with much trepidation.

    • I hope you like it. There were many parts of it that I loved. The characters actually don’t clog up the book, except when they are all running on completely separate storylines and I wanted them to be together.

  • Wow! I’m glad you read this instead of me. 😉 I hope your next read is much better.

    • I have read lots of good things since. Excellent.

  • What a great review 😀 You had me rolling laughing at times here :p I’m so confused on this one, Jenny!!!!! Part of me is dying to read it, part of me is terrified of it, and part of me is bored of it :/ I think mostly I just want to read some Byatt…I think I just need to start with Possession!

    • Hahahaha, Chris, you just need to start with Possession. Of course if you do that, you might spend the rest of your life being disappointed in any other Byatt books you try, like I’ve been.

  • I have this to read and am hesitating over it. On the one hand I generally like Byatt and am interested to see how I’ll do with it; on the other, I am sure it is going to be a tough read for exactly the reasons you mention!

    • I don’t think it’s completely lacking in merit or anything. If you’re a Byatt fan, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t enjoy this one.

  • Eva

    *clutches Byatt to chest* :p

    • Hahaha, aw, but I still love Possession!

  • I did tell you! 😉 Now you know why I made the face!

    I had forgotten about the famous people cameos. So ridiculous! Possession is always worth a reread though. If only The Children’s Book had been more like Possession!

    • I do, I do. I didn’t dislike it nearly as much as you did, but yeah, I understand the face.

  • I can’t even get through Possession! And I’ve tried it in both print and audio.

    • I can’t imagine it would do well in audio. You would have a harder time skipping the poetry in audio. There is so much poetry.

  • While I adored Possession, I’ve never been able to get through another of her books, this one included.

    • I haven’t been able to get through any but this and Possession (which I loved). The Virgin in the Tower, I’ve tried that one at least three times, and gotten nowhere. The Children’s Book was easier for me because of the Victorian stuff. I love the Victorians.

  • Man, I really want to love this book but I keep reading reviews like yours. I don’t at all mind long, even a little bit of bloating can be fine with me if I’m in the right mood, and I love the eras evoked, and I loved Possession. And I love the meta stuff, and actually did read and enjoy all the poetry in Possession. That said, I am starting to suspect that The Children’s Book is actually objectively long-winded, hard to follow, and trying of most peoples’ patience. Hmm. Guess there’s only one way to find out for sure how I feel about it…

    • Eva

      I loved it! And so did Ana! And a few other people with whom I talked about it on Twitter one day. Does that give you a bit of hope? 😉

    • What Eva said! You know you want to read it. *starts chanting One of Us, One of us*

  • This book reminds me of that nursery rhyme Polly put the Kettle On, it’s been on and off my wishlist so many times – thank you for ending the song for me and it can remain well and truly off! 😉

    • Hahaha, I know that rhyme. I am nervous about being responsible for your never reading this — have you read Possession? It’s very good! Don’t write off Byatt forever because of me.

  • I didn’t realize this one had poetry in it, too. I tried to read the poetry in POSSESSION, but then I got fed up and skipped over it. In fact, I actually got rid of my copy of POSSESSION because I was all, “There is fake nineteenth century epic poetry in here and I don’t hold with that sort of thing and I don’t ever want to have to read it again.” Then I realized that, hey, I didn’t have to read the fake nineteenth century epic poetry again, and the rest of the story was great, and I went and bought myself a new copy for the princely sum of $2 (which I think is just about right, when you’re replacing a book you shouldn’t have gotten rid of in the first place).

    I’ve been a little scared of this book for a while now, because I was worried it would be exactly how you found it. Hmmm.

    • It doesn’t have poetry throughout. It has a stretch of war poetry that’s easily flipped past if you do not fancy reading angsty — hah, I don’t even know if it was angsty. I think there were birds in it. I really skipped it, dude.

      (Also, I had that exact experience with Possession. But mine was $1. WIN.)

  • Amy

    I have this on my TBR but the enormous list of characters scares me.

    • On the up side, there’s a part where they’re all in the same place at the same time, and they all get introduced by family and relationship to each other.

  • Jennifer Dee

    I’m sorry to say that I gave up on this book. At first I thought this is going to be a good read then I just got bogged down and lost interest, so much so, that I just could not face going on any further.

    • I can understand that. When did you give up? If it was in the first half I am surprised, but if it was the second half, then not.

  • As a writer, I have to thank you for the tolerance of your review. You really tried hard to like this book.

    • I liked many parts of it!

  • I have a great fear of Byatt!

    • That’s because you haven’t read Possession yet. Possession is legitimately amazing.

  • I’ve never read anything by Byatt, but I recently picked up a copy of Possession. I’m planning to start there and see what happens. One of my old coworkers really liked The Children’s Book, so I’m leaning towards at least giving it a chance!

    • Possession is eminently likeable. It has scholars researching historical figures in a really great way. Also it quotes the bit that says “icily regular, splendidly null”.

  • It does seem heavy going. I browsed through it at the bookshop, but just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. My house is already stuffed with books I have ambitiously picked out and never read 🙁

    • I wouldn’t have bought it, for sure. It is too huge, and my room is too small.

  • You missed my -relatively scathing- review! Byatt did not win my heart. It is amazingly accomplished but just far too long and dense (if I remember correctly, I used the word “turgid” to describe it at time).

  • I found this book for $1 at the library book sale but have yet to read (so I skipped this review… for now.)

    • Oo, excellent deal! I will enjoy hearing your thoughts on it eventually, I’m sure.

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  • OMG, who are all these people you mention in your review? and bits of poetry throughout? This book is seriously intimidating 🙁