The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt

I mentioned yesterday that Book Groups are great because they make you read an interesting and diverse mix of books that you might not normally read. The same has applied for me with the Man Booker Longlist. There are authors and books on in the Man Booker dozen that I would never have read if it hadn’t been for giving the list a go, there was one author though I was slightly daunted by and that was A.S. Byatt. I had tried to read Possession the year before last and not gotten too far with it, though this maybe because I had masses I wanted to read around the time (it’s pre-blogging but I did keep lists of what I read and tried to read in a notebook) it just seemed a little dense and clever for me. Would her latest novel be the same, would I be able to finish it as I swore I would read every page of every long listed book, would this be my downfall?

The Children’s Book is not what it first appears on many levels. For a start its not a children’s book though I do wonder what children would be let in for if A.S. Byatt decided to write them some. Anyway I digress. The book opens in the wonderful setting of the V&A Museum in London as two boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, watch another who himself is in awe of one of the pieces the museum holds. However the boy they are watching, who we learn to be Phillip, and whom Julian thinks “there’s something shifty about him” suddenly vanishes miraculously. Julian’s father being the ‘Special Keeper Of Precious Metals’ he is at home with the museum and so they tail the boy until finding him living hidden deep down in the depths of the museum. From this I thought we were going to get some kind of adventure novel however we don’t.

From this moment the boys take Phillip to Julian’s father and Tom’s mother who is the children’s author Olive Wellwood. Olive decides she will take the boy in and help him to become his dream of a potter. It is this twist that then leads us to what the book is truly about and that is the art and crafts movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in fact the book spans the era of 1895 to the end of the Great War. During this huge piece of time we follow all the above mentioned characters and all they come across as their stories and journeys develop.

Now as you can see describing the opening chapter is quite an effort so to describe the whole book would possibly end up with me writing something half the length of the book itself which lies at a rather large 617 pages but you will whizz through them. There are some parts that are a little dull and are harder to get through. I found some of the politics and some of the industrial movement explanations and reactions to a little hard to endure. Also though A.S. Byatt is clearly a true mistress of words and creates the most vivid characters there are so many you can end up (without the use of a notebook) getting slightly confused by everyone you meet, who is related to or who knows who? I did occasionally also find that though I loved the descriptions that A.S Byatt gives us it could be a little much, even though oddly in parts the book can be a little rushed. For example describing one or two costumes at a midsummer ball is delightful, describing almost every one of the 100+ guests outfits for a few pages was a bit much.

You do get lost in the rich wording and prose, and though not the biggest fan of arts and crafts I found myself completely drawn into the world and into all the descriptions of the pottery and other crafts and how they were made and I wouldn’t have expected that. If I was asked to sum this book up in one word it would be ‘immense’ the cast of intriguing and delightful characters is vast, the time period the book covers it’s a very interesting one and one of great change, and the writing is simply beautiful. I can fully understand why it’s in the long list for the Man Booker and wouldn’t be surprised if it is in the shortlist.

It does seem I am slightly daunted by both the size of books (as with Wolf Hall and once again I was proven wrong) and authors who have a reputation that precedes them, if you know what I mean? Have you ever been put off by a book that was too big or was an author you had heard lots about that daunted you? Did you then read the book and get a surprise? Do you have any of these kinds of books on your TBR? What other A.S. Byatt books would you recommend?


Filed under A. S. Byatt, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review

17 responses to “The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt

  1. adevotedreader

    I’ve put this aside until I have some time to devote to it, as I find Byatt;s novels reward patience, a bit like rich dense fruitcake that takes time to digest.

    IHer short stories are quite different but still wonderfully written and I’d recommend them highly. My favourite collections are Still life, Elementals and The Little Black Book of Stories.

  2. I’ve never read any A.S. Byatt, but this book has been getting some buzz. I’m intrigued! However, I do shy away from the chunksters. I just finished one that had been on a reading challenge list and had been on my shelf for about 9 months and untouched, all because it was over 700 pages long. I finally gave in a read it, and loved it. But still, how sad is it that I put these larger books off because I want to post reviews often? Pathetic but true.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading this, but I love long books that I can really immerse myself into, and Possession is one of my favorites. The only other Byatt I’ve read is The Biographer’s Tale, which I didn’t like much.

  4. Hi,
    I heard about your blog whilst having breakfast with your Gran! She said to google you so I did, look forward to reading more :o) I thought by commenting I could make all your Gran fans jealous! She is so great

    • Hahahaha I spoke to Gran as I was slightly worried who she might be having breakfast with. I thought she had some fancy man. Hope the wedding was good and that you and Colin are well?

  5. Amy

    I read Possession but it took me a while to get into it, it was the first Byatt I read, and I took it slowly. And it was a wonderful book. Byatt’s books tend to be long and I think they are best read slowly and savoured. The Virgin in the Garden, one of her earlier books, is about a family, 3 children, grown and beginning their lives in academics and such. It is about teaching, love, relationships and so much more. You can see Byatt’s inspiration from DH Lawrence, Ovid, Henry James, T.S Eliot and the romantics in many of her books, especially her earlier works.

    I am so impressed you are reading Ulysses! Now that is a daunting book! James Joyce is difficult but worth while I think, but I haven’t tackled Ulysses yet!

  6. I will have to get this one. Yours is the umpteenth good review I’ve read. I loved Possession, probably much more than it deserved to be loved. Read it two or three times, I can’t remember. I still keep a copy to reread in my old age.

    I’ve never been able to get into anything else Byatt has written. This one, sounds like it would do the trick.

  7. justicejenniferreads

    This book sounds really interesting. One thing I love, if done right, is really descriptive books. But the descriptions have to be just right so that I can use them to picture the scene – to bring the book to life.

    As for your questions. I have definitely been put off by books for their size and their author’s reputation. I don’t always overcome that fear, but when I do, it usually is to a pleasant surprise. There are few books I meet that I totally despise.

  8. Pingback: Children’s Books… Not The Children’s Book « Savidge Reads

  9. Pingback: The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt « Page247

  10. Jacqui Clarke

    Interesting review, and very funny to see how many people are put off by a long (and heavy when it falls on your head in bed!) book.

    I came across your blog while looking for reviews of Farundell, which I see you didn’t enjoy. I did, a lot, so thought I would investigate some of your other reviews to see if you just won’t agree with me on anything. But, it looks like your exeperience of Farundell was merely a blip.

    I often wonder if external factors can influence your enjoyment of a book – from aspects as varied as what is going on in your life at the time, to other books you have just read, to historical periods and countries with which you feel a particular affinity.

    I loved Posession with something of a ridiculous passion, and although it was a huge leap from the book, really enjoyed the film as well. I also loved The Childrens’ Book, Babel Tower, The Virgin in the Garden, and Angels and Insects. I totally agree that with AS Byatt you must be patient and completely immersed, but surely any book deserves that kind of attention from its reader?

    I also really enjoyed Wolf Hall – another weighty tome with which one had to exercise a great deal of concentration and patience.

    Looking at your list of reviewed authors to my right, many of which I am already familiar, I am now very interested to peruse more of your reviews. Winter is coming to New Zealand, so perhaps I will make myself a new list of potential reads.



  11. Louise Trolle

    I loved Possession, and am planning to read The Children’s Book later this year, but a good place to start, I think, is her short stories

    Little Black Book of Stories or
    Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

  12. Started The Children’s Book but had to abandon it for the time being, as I felt I needed to take notes to keep tabs on everyone. Should one have to do that? Since the main characters, the author and her promiscuous husband, seem to be largely based on children’s author E Nesbit, her husband and their circle, I hate to think I have given up on it altogether.
    Oh, and I enjoyed The Biographer’s Tale ( so I’m honour-bound to try it again.

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