Ok, please excuse me whilst I gush, but I absolutely loved this book, adored it. I listened to it in audiobook format and in audiobook it is long, over 30 hours I think, so only liking to listen to audiobooks when I’m alone with no risk of being disturbed, it took me a while to listen to this (as I don’t get that much me time). I started listening in November and finished listening today and was almost sad for the recording to finish, the lives of the families in The Children’s Book, growing for such a long amount of listening time, I wanted to know what happened next. The audiobook was helped massively by its narrator, Nicolette McKenzie, who was fantastic , she does a lot of work for Radio 4 I think, her range of voices was fabulous. I’ve listened to audiobooks now where if it’s a male narrator, all the female characters sound the same and the male characters not much better, basically it sounds like the narrator slightly altering their voice and the same with female narrators, but with McKenzie, her voices all sounded so different, it was less like listening to a book being read to me and more like listening to a radio play.
As for the story itself, well, put it this way, it’s the first time I’ve listened to an audiobook and then gone out and bought the book to. I just know this will be a book I’ll listen to or read again, over and over and for me, very few books reach that distinction (I know lots of people who have a whole league of books they like to reread, but I normally much prefer reading something new).
The story is set between 1895 and 1919, a period of time I’ve always found interesting (I was always glad at school, that my history GCSE ended up being the modern history syllabus) and one I found even more interesting about the time I started listening to The Children’s Book, as I’d recently watched Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain, a programme I’d found fascinating.
The Children’s Book is a little bit of a weird book, it almost reads like a work of non-fiction in places, as if someone has written the biography of a group of families that used to party together, a little imaginatively in some places and quite dryly in others, with lots of in 1907 so and so did so and so, sort of thing. AS Byatt has interspersed her characters with real life people and events, which made the whole thing seem even more real.
The story starts in 1895, with the discovery of a scruffy looking boy called Philip hiding in the museum that was to become the V&A, by Tom, the son of a famous writer of children’s books and Julian, the son of one of the museum keepers. Tom’s mother, Olive Wellwood, is meeting Julian’s father, Prosper Cain, in an attempt to research material for one of her books. The boys bring Philip in front of Prosper Cain and Olive decides that Philip needs to come home with her, to Todefright, a beautiful bohemian home in the country, full of children, beautiful things and imagination. Philip, who just wants to make pots, ends up going to live in Purchase House, somewhere completely different from Todefright, with the (what we would these days call) bipolar genius potter Benedict Fludd and his dysfunctional family. It turns out though that things aren’t so functional in Todefright either.
We follow the Cains, two separate branches of the Wellwoods, the Fludds, Philip and his sister and various German relatives, as the children in the families grow up and go through historic events such as the suffragette movement and head unknowingly towards the Great War. There are deaths and marriages and births and with each event you feel (or at least I felt) simultaneously happy (in the case of a marriage for example) for the couple and sympathetic towards the characters that are going to have the nose out of joint by the event. I caught myself several times smiling and going “Awww” at happy events, something I think you only get when a writer has made the characters seem so real that you actually care for them*.
I loved how AS Byatt zoomed and soared throughout the book; taking a very expansive view at some points (notably at the beginning of chapters) and then zooming in on minute details. As I settled into the book, I began to learn instinctively that the zooming in on detail meant that something was going to happen. It’s not a trick exclusive to AS Byatt I know, but I thought she did it very well, it felt like the hush before a storm, almost like the creepy music or the ramping up of the score, on TV or film. There were, for me, a couple of key events in the book, where suddenly everything changed and you knew that they were coming, with this trick. The character of Dorothy, just simply undressing after a ball at the V&A (I won’t say what the event was that came immediately after the undressing scene, but oh my jaw dropped) or the character Tom walking along the beach, after a spectacular case of bad parenting, with my favourite lines in the whole book, simply a description of walking of pebbles;
You have to think about walking on pebbles. Every time you put your feet down, the pebbles impress themselves, hard and recalcitrant through the soles of your shoes.
That makes me feel the pebbles through my shoes, reading that.
From a personal viewpoint I love how AS Byatt has written in one book about my twin loves; writing and craft (although the principal craft featured is pottery, there is silver smithing and a little embroidery to). She even writes heavily about the V&A to (my favourite museum). The amount of research she must have done is amazing and yet she has skillfully inserted it into the book, yes at times it feels like a lecture, but for once that leads to the curious non-fiction tone of the work and is far better than some books I’ve read where you’ve had characters in the beginning of books sitting in pubs giving lectures to each other, just so the reader is up to scratch with the history of the period before the story actually begins.
It’s an odd book in another way in that it includes, throughout the story, stories for Olive Wellwood and some poetry from one of the other characters. I liked Olive’s fairy stories, they added a dream like quality to the whole thing.
As for the climax, the Great War, I have to admit, I don’t read many war stories and I’m sure there are lots of them out there that make it sound as grim as it actually was but I think the length of time we had got to know these characters, from childhood, prior to the war, made their horrible deaths even more horrible.
All in all, there are few books that make me wish that I was actually there, the early 20th century sounds such a fascinating era to grow up in, not the easiest of eras, I have to admit, but at least for the middle class, there seemed so much hope and opportunity for change, so many ways they felt they could go about it. Yet there was still the painful class divide and the restrictions, just breaking down, on what women could do. But I’d have loved to have been at one of their Fabian camps, throwing pots, putting on plays, earnest discussions late at night . . .
*This is where I become, very probably the only person ever to invoke 24 in a review of The Children’s Book, but it was a similar effect in last night’s episode where, over the phone (what was it about last night’s episode? It seemed like about 80% of the key conversations were over the phone) Jack Bauer and Renee Walker, very simply declare their, well at least affection, for each other**. It made both me and Mr. Lacer go “Awww” involuntarily and you only get that when knee jerk response at a character’s happiness when the writers have put in enough effort to make you care about them.
**You of course now know, this being 24, that Rennee now has to die.