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?