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The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt

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Genre: Fiction / Author: A.S. Byatt / Edition: Airports / Ireland / Export e. / Paperback / 592 Pages / Book is published 2009-05-07 by Chatto

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      24.06.2013 21:53
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      Turn of 19th Century period drama/family saga that drags

      My first experience of an A. S. Byatt book has not been a pretty one. Assured that her novel 'Possession' is literary genius, and noticing that 'The Children's Book' was short listed for the Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago, I thought that a book involving adventure and children was certainly one to be excited about reading. WEEKS later, it certainly isn't the case.

      Byatt's prose is certainly sophisticated. Victorian/Edwardian tales often are; the nature of the era often demands a certain style of writing and failing to provide this would result in a lacklustre and awkward tale that you would regret commencing. You see, I'm already doing it, using 'commencing' where 'starting' would have been my usual choice. This novel however, goes the other extreme, using two pages where one sentence would often do, and at 600 pages it just took forever and was more like a chore than anything else.

      That's not to say that I don't feel a certain sense of achievement from reading the book, and at times there were passages where events happened in thrilling circumstances and various different characters intermingled and intertwined, even intercoursed, if there be such a word (sorry Victorian/Edwardian sentence construction exuding once more, forsooth...). Essentially, what Byatt gives us is an excessively detailed family saga, the sort you'd expect to see on TV. Imagine Downton Abbey with even more detail, crammed into one book and with every visual detail and thought process described so much to the point that you are completely unable to use your imagination as it has nothing left to imagine.

      Byatt's central characters start off as the Wellwoods, living in the Kent country house of Todefright. Humphrey and Olive have numerous children (I think I could name them by about page 354) all of whom have their own books written for them by mother Olive, an author. Humphrey is also a writer, but for a newspaper, and he and his brother Basil regularly disagree on the political situation in the country. This is set in the 1890s, with interspersed sections detailing the colour of shoe shine during the Boer war superceded only by the exact angle of one of the carvings on a museum piece examined by Philip, a homeless boy with an eye for art found by the Wellwoods' son Tom and his friend Julian, the son of the local generic Army officer, Prosper Cain (what a brilliant name!).

      Philip turns out to be a gifted artist and potter, so he becomes the apprentice of local sexual devient Benedict Fludd, master potter, husband and father. The Wellwoods, their cousins, the Cains and the Fludds all socialise together on a regular basis, and as Byatt takes us leisurely through their lives, it doesn't take long before you realise that this is more a description of their rather bland social lives than an entertaining novel. As I said earlier, there are moments of clarity where you get in the groove of the tales, but it's not long before Byatt decides to give us yet another extremely detailed history lesson. The turn of the 19th Century featured lots of international shifts, with the Boer War, the uprising in Germany which then developed into World War I, then at home the emergence of the Fabian Society and the Suffragette Movement. I believe Byatt gives us so many characters because she wants to be able to believably dip her literary skills into each of these elements without allowing one character an experience in all of them.

      As a result, this is so hard to follow and I have to admit to being bored a number of times when reading. However, I find it impossible to not finish a book I've started, and were I a pure history buff then I'd probably have enjoyed this immensely. I can see why it was shortlisted for a literary award as it's the style of writing as well as the progression from start to finish of the characters that serve it well. The problem is that the journey is just so languid. Easily 200 pages too long, you can easily hold a reader's attention and include a generally higher level of literary intelligence without needing to insert the occasional thesis into the chapters. I honestly found myself skipping parts I knew were just historical background, scouring the pages for any mention of the lead characters like a hopeful kid doing a timed wordsearch. I don't usually skim read, I really don't like it, but this book would be a prime example for me of why anyone would want to. I don't feel I missed anything by doing this as I have an extremely clear picture of the characters, their events and how they finish the book.

      Now I've finished, I suppose I'll miss some of the characters and the locations that were written about, but merely because of the amount of time this has taken me to read and just how engrained in my daily life they have become. 600 pages of small text, a lot of detailed historical development and a clear passion from the author with regard to this era, The Children's Book is something to be undertaken with forewarning lest you be fooled into thinking this is something it's not. I am determined to continue with Byatt, and have Possession firmly lined in my sights. I feel for the moment though as if I need to read something much simpler. James Patterson, you me and the Famous Five are going to read some books.

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      27.03.2011 18:42

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      Be patient...There's a lot to take in

      Again, a book brought for its colourful cover, and intriguing blurb. I am fascinated by Victorian life, and family relationships, and the arts. This book seemed to have it all. Throw in some dark foibles and you have it all, right?

      Wrong. Right from the beginning, I feel awful to say this but I found it a struggle. There are so many characters, as two or maybe three (even now I'm not actually sure) family intertwine to weave this story, and I struggled to figure out who was married to who, who was whose sibling, and who was supposed to be whose sibling but wasn't really. Gibberish you say? Probably, coming from my lips.

      I'm not saying that A.S Byatt cant write; the descriptions are vivid and clearly this is somebody who knows how to do their research, but when it takes two pages to describe an ornate pot, I found myself asking whether I was reading a historical novel or a text book on pots.

      If I'm honest, this book seemed to tell several stories, and then nothing at all, as there was so much going on I can no longer remember half of what I read. I can perhaps blame my low attention span, but I know that's not really true, but I am sad that I read this story through without ever really becoming engrossed. Beautifully written, but perhaps more words than their needed to be!

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      19.07.2010 12:29
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      Too many characters

      One of the fundamentals to a good holiday is a good book. Ideally something that is engrossing, lengthy (I read at a quick rate and a 300 page novel would not last a flight) and is not Jodi Piccoult. Mooching round the airport bookshops I was pretty uninspired, I considered buying one of my typical historical thrillers but decided it was time to diversify. The Children's Book stood out like a beacon, the intensely decorated and terrific cover seemed to pull me in, the dragonfly brooch and ornate gold lettering was certainly eye-catching. The blurb depicted a tale of children and families at the turn of the 20th Century and caught my attention by hinting at murkier goings on. As if to affirm that this was a good choice the front cover proudly proclaims that the novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize. I purchased my colourful find for £7.99.

      At this juncture I knew nothing of the author however on my arrival to Canada my friend who studies literature was reading Possession which was a 1990 Booker Prize winner and is apparently outstanding, sadly I am not sure after this novel I feel inspired enough to take it on.

      The book begins with Tom Wellgood and Julian Cain discovering Phillip, a young boy like themselves, living in the museum whose talent for art is already visible. The young children are from very privileged backgrounds, a complete contrast to Philip who is penniless, hungry and homeless. The Wellgood's, headed by matriarch Olive Wellgood the authoress, take Phillip home, clothe him, feed him and find him work as an apprentice with Benedict Fludd.

      The first chapter is exciting and happy, we meet the many vibrant characters that continue the rest of the novel and you begin to be absorbed in this genteel and liberal environment. It bodes well I had visions of following Phillip through his quest to become a potter but this was too singular a focus for Byatt.
      Obviously there is a lot of attention on the children, as was customary in that era the families are considerably large so a good chunk of the novel had me referring back to the start to figure out who was related to who. Once I realised that yes the author does intend to write about each and every one of the them my interest in them all began to wane as I feared, rightly so, that I would not be able to keep my interest in each of them.

      And so the novel proceeds with the key characters being the Wellgood family: Humphrey, Olive, Violet, Tom, Florian, Robin, Phylss, Dorothy. The Cain family; Prosper, Florence and Julian. The Fludd family: Benedict, Pomona, Imogen, Seraphita. Phillip and Else Warren. The Metheleys (Humphrey Metheley appears to be god's greatest gift to women although I was left wondering if he was the worlds oldest philanderer by the end of the novel) and various other people and children who pop up and are born throughout the book. As I hope I have demonstrated an in depth character analysis of all these players is simply not possible

      The occasional interspersions of children's stories bored me, they were not without point and obviously help allude to the books title but it was not long before the focus of the novel shifted away from Olive Wellgood and therefore, for me, the point of the children's tales were lost. I believe A.S Byatt uses a similar technique in Possession with the inclusion of poems to much greater success.


      I began to get frustrated with the whimsical, long and often pointless descriptions. On one occasion I was able to skip an entire four pages and miss nothing of any interest. I have no doubt that some people would greatly enjoy the intricate and minute details that Byatt displays, clearly the novel is well researched but I found it excessive.
      There are some very interesting historical insights in the novel, the rise of the suffragettes, the Fabian and socialist quest for an equal society, an examination of the sexual liberation, homosexuality and also the apparently prevalent child abuse however the inclusion of too many characters experiencing too many of these issues at times made it confusing and haphazard to follow.

      I read the entire novel because my attention was at times captured and I enjoyed the historical context but on the whole it was a little dull. It showed such promise in the beginning but I began to loathe each of the characters, Olive becomes self obsessed, Tom becomes increasingly introverted without any real explanation as to its source and the girls in pursuit of their liberation end up shackled with pregnancy or loneliness. Even Phillip who had me so enamoured never really progressed and appeared to have a distinct lack of personality.

      I appreciate the novel is meant to show their struggle but the same effect could have been achieved with a third of the waffle. On the whole it was a pretty dismal and bleak conclusion with the last pages being devoted to a sudden climax in the First World War and the inevitable consequences that it brings, to me it felt as if Byatt could not figure out a way to let go of the characters and so romped through an additional and unnecessary decade just to bring the book to an end.

      Not for me and certainly doesn't make me want to delve into the author's other works.

      I read the the paperback edition by Vintage in 2010. 615 pages
      ISBN 9780099535454

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        07.03.2010 19:40
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        A disappointment

        The Children's Book is the epic story of several families who live their lives at the turn of the century, and covers the world of art, politics, feminism and much more, as society gradually slides towards the War to end all Wars.

        The novel begins with the Wellwood family; a seemingly harmonious gaggle of vibrant and talented people, ruled by Olive, the talented matriarch. Beautiful and gracious, Olive Wellwood holds her family together financially as well as emotionally as she writes a seemly endless series of children's fairy stories. As each of her children are born, she writes a special book just for them, with that child as the central character - and this gives AS Byatt's novel its title.

        Intertwining with the lives of the Wellwood family is the Fludd family. Dominated by the egocentric Benedict Fludd, a talented potter, this family live in the Romney marshes, often in poverty as they run their lives around the vagaries of Fludd's artistic temperament. The docile women of the house make a strange contrast to the temperamental outbursts of Fludd, as he lurches from intense creativity to suicidal despondency, and when they are joined by Philip, a new potters apprentice they accept him into their household apparently without even noticing his presence.

        The third family is the family of Prosper Cain, the curator of the new Victoria and Albert museum. Living with his children Julian and Florence, his life and the lives of his family weave in and out of the lives of the Fludds and the Wellwoods, as the children grow up.

        Other families and people, both in England and Europe, flit in and out of the story - and famous names are dropped into the narrative like confetti as they visit the Paris Exhibition, move between London and Germany, and generally indulge in the opulent Bohemenian lifestyle of the early 1900s. Living the lives of the Bohemian middle class, their friends are mainly anarchists, socialists, freethinkers, and writers, spreading new and exciting ideas about sexual liberation and freedom.

        As the children grow up they become involved in all of the exciting developments of that time, the women fighting for an education at Oxford, to become doctors, imprisoned as suffragettes. The men become swept away by Fabianism as well as the new business capitalism that now became an acceptable profession for the upper classes. With people such as Oscar Wilde, Marie Stopes and Rupert Brooke dropping by, the sense of a civilisation on the brink of a huge change and excitement is wonderfully portrayed. Theories of Freud and the great philosophers are dropped into everyday conversation as the characters lap up the new boundaries of intellectual life.

        Yet nothing is what it seems, and as the story progresses, secrets are peeled back like onion skin, to reveal yet more secrets beneath. The reader starts to realise that the idyllic life portrayed at the beginning of the story has hidden depths, and that secrets can often be deeply unpleasant and shocking.

        My main criticism of this work is that at times it is a little too detailed. Descriptions such as the Paris Exhibition with new art forms such as Art Nouveau are fascinating, but as the descriptions go on for pages and pages, attention starts to drift and the reader definitely gets the feeling of being lectured. With such a huge cast, there is little of Edwardian life that is left out; homosexuality, politics, art - there is a character to experience every one of the historical themes that Byatt chooses to examine. Unfortunately, the experience and the history tend to form a barrier to reader engagement - I found myself totally unmoved by the stories, the births, deaths, rapes and loves of the various family members. By putting so much into her novel and creating so many fascinating and diverse characters, Byatt has destroyed any empathy or interest. The whole book, although inarguably interesting, becomes a theatrically illustrated history book, rather than a novel with real, flesh and blood characters.

        This is Byatt's first book for seven years, and many have compared it to the hugely successful Possession that won the Booker Prize in 1990. A S Byatt has always written unashamedly intellectual works, but on this occasion she may have gone too far; this huge tome, crammed with ideas, politics and artistic innovation, may just turn the majority of her readers away.

        The Children's Book was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize.

        The paperback edition was published by Vintage in 2010
        615 pages, ISBN 9780099535454

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          26.02.2010 22:02
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          Not one I would recommend

          I was really excited to read this book, as it was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year. It's a complex story, so it's a little hard to summarise adequately. Basically, the book revolves around a number of families, who are interlinked by certain members of each family. The main family centers around Olive, who writes children's stories. Hers is a large family, and she writes each child their own private story, that she adds to as they grow up. The narrative changes between the actual characters and the stories that Olive writes. Apart from Olive and her family, other characters included Prosper Cain, the curator at the new Victoria and Albert museum, his son and daughter, Benedict Fludd, a potter with a very dark side, along with his family and apprentice Philip, and also Philip's sister Else.

          The story begins in about 1895, when the children are young, and follows them as they grow up. The narrative flits between a number of different characters. In my opinion, there are too many, so it becomes hard to care for them all. It feels like the author is trying to cram too much into the story. While you would imagine this would make the story lack depth, the opposite is the case. It is a highly complex, deeply woven story, which at time becomes far too bogged down in historical detail. Towards the end of the book, we are given an unneccessary, prolonged history of the build up to World War 1, which sets up the finale.

          The end of the book felt rushed, as though the author wanted to give the reader an ending for every character, but only gave herself a few pages to do this.

          Overall, I have to say I was disappointed with this book. While some parts are beautifully written and touching, I found it hard to 'get into' the story, and it took me quite a while to finish it, which is very unusual for me

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