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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Review of A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

As a young, so-called literary critic, it is nice to know that my literary tastes and acumen are up there with the best. I had just written a review of A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, when I came across James Wood's essay on it in the London Review of Books. "James who?" you ask. Oh, you know, only the Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard.

Wood writes about Byatt's "teacherly, qualifying authorial judgment[s]." I said of the novel that its style shares much with her didactic, academic essays. Wood writes, in a lovely phrase, that "Whenever a detail could be selected at the expense of another one, Byatt will always prefer to buy both, and include the receipts." I wrote that "Byatt's cultural references dominate to its detriment." Both Wood and myself reached the same general conclusions: that this is in many ways a remarkable work, a faithful - perhaps too much so - recreation of the Edwardian period, which sacrifices psychologically realist characterisation on the alter of intellectual fascination. Or, as Wood puts it rather better, "Byatt's characters are themselves her dutiful puppets, always squeezed and shaped for available meaning."

Now as if I was not feeling smug enough at having framed a broadly similar response to Wood, although my view of the novel is perhaps slightly more positive in the end, along comes Adam Roberts, blogger at the esteemed literary organ, The Valve. Roberts notes in his review that "by its end this novel certainly builds a considerable degree of heft, which gives its soap-like family births-and-deaths actual emotional momentum. But density can very easily become stodge, and it often does so in this book." This is essentially the same judicious balance both myself, and Wood, appear to have reached.

Which makes it all the more surprising that The Children's Book was not only on the Man Booker Prize longlist (one might have well expected it to be there; it seems entry is almost automatically conferred on anyone who has previously won the prize, as Byatt did with Possession in 1991) but then jumped through to the shortlist of six. Though undoubtedly a work of great historical value, can this really have been one of the most readerly novels of 2009? Certainly, it would not have been a worthy winner, though it is, reservations aside, a worthy book.

I have just posted my full review to The Pequod, and with the two other reviews by Roberts and Wood, it should be clear why the book, though a feat of intellectual engineering, does not quite work as a novel: Review of A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:57 am


Blogger sarariches said...

I have just finished this - and it was brilliant. I love being educated by reading fiction and this did just that. I learnt a lot about the period, and intend to look up many of the people and characters mentioned in the book.

I thought the fairy stories mirroring the real world were fabulous - literally. I grieved for Fludd's daughters, for Tom for Olive and Violet's children, and for the slaughter of the first world war - the writing here short and brutal.

I don;t care what other people think. I think it would have been a very worthy Booker winner.

6:30 pm  

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