This is my review of The Children’s Book by A S Byatt.
The author's deep knowledge of the arts in Europe as the late Victorian age gave way to the Edwardian makes me hesitate to criticise this lengthy, complex work, and it is easy to see how it came to be shortlisted for the Man Booker. Although I found the opening pages wordy and slightly stilted, what I came to see as an erudite soap opera of a privileged circle whose lives revolved round art and writing gradually sucked me in as the darker forces began to emerge from beneath the idyllic surface. Without giving away too much, we are speaking of casual promiscuity, incest, and the exploitation of others, often in the name of art. Byatt manages to develop and differentiate a large cast of characters,each of whom are brought to the fore in turn as the story evolves. Some of the dialogue was sharp and revealing.
I found the story gripping for chapters at a time, and appreciate this as the kind of story in which a reader can become totally engrossed, entering another world, so as to be sorry when it ends. However, there were a few flaws which arguably cost it the ultimate Man Booker Prize. Byatt has a habit of telling you what is about to happen, rather than let the reader experience the suddent shock of revelation (when this is allowed to happen, it works well). Also, her narration of the historical and political background to the story can be rather didactic and too condensed to make much sense. An example of this is an almost incomprehensible and apparently superfluous description of Lady Asquith's correspondence with Lloyd George. I would have like less of this, giving more time for character development. Having said this, I felt "educated" by the book.
Am I the only reader whose heart sinks when confronted by the prospect of reading a lengthy fairy story? I realise fairy stories are important to the author, and they are relevant to a key character, and the "climax" of the plot but they are an acquired taste.
The length of this book, smacking of self indulgence at times and an inability to prune, makes this book compare unfavourably with the shorter and much more sharply focussed "The Glass Room" – another impressive item on the Man Booker shortlist.
With a more ruthless edit, this book would have been excellent rather than an impressively researched and enjoyable read.