An unexpected return to the Booker shortlist and the novel that I was least likely to read – a book club obligation, and one that had to be met in less than a week, a fact that has possibly influenced my less than charitable view. The main fault of The Children’s Book has already been widely stated, though occasionally almost as if it were a compliment: it is bloated with research, stuffed with facts and figures, crammed with quotations from writers and politicians. At times it reads like a textbook, at others it is merely irritating as a page long history of an unimportant object further delays the narrative.
You don’t have to go far to find an example. What about the third page and its two hundred word description of the Gloucester Candlestick:
“It was dully gold. It seemed heavy. It stood on three feet, each of which was a long-eared dragon, grasping a bone with grim claws, gnawing with sharp teeth…”
Well, perhaps all this detail simply represents Tom’s fascination with object.
“…It was probable it had been made in Canterbury – modelled in wax and cast – but apart from the symbols of he evangelists on the knop, it appeared not be made for religious use…”
Wait a minute – how does Tom know all this? Oh, this is Julian explaining the candlestick’s history to Tom, just as young boys do, in the same didactic narrative voice that is used throughout. This would be forgivable if the candlestick were of symbolic or narrative importance, but it isn’t; it’s simply the beginning of a fetishism of objects that echoes throughout the novel where so many characters feel the need to throw a pot – and I don’t mean at the wall. This is accompanied by a need for historical detail that reaches a low point when we are told for the second time that Arthur Skinner, a character of no importance, had once “tutored the royal children in Siam”.
The novel is not simply overloaded with facts, however, it is also awash with characters. This could be accepted if the novel was intended as social history – and it does seem to have aspirations in this area – but it deals only with those from an atypical grouping of upper-middle class liberals with radical pretensions. Any working class characters are quickly absorbed: Philip, of course, is artistically gifted; but even his sister, Elsie must have artistic inclinations and end up a teacher. Most unconvincing of all is Olive, the writer of children’s stories, who supposedly comes from a mining background. Interestingly, her story bridges any change in her character in silence – one minute she and her sister are deciding to get the train for London; the next they are at an English Literature lecture being given by her future husband, Humphrey. The origins of their relationship also do not feature in a novel that has room for everything else.
When a character does strike the reader as interesting (as Philip does on his first appearance) he or she is then likely to disappear for a hundred pages. Luckily most characters are unlikeable and irritating. Clearly, Byatt intends to show the adult characters acting like children, absorbed in their own small worlds, using their principles to justify their selfish desires – Humphrey and Herbert Methley with their lovers; Olive with her writing. They have little time for their own children; and Olive, in particular, while writing Tom’s story has no time to talk to the clearly troubled Tom who eventually commits suicide – though for no obvious reason. The child characters, however, are hardly more sympathetic – perhaps only Dorothy with her determination to be a doctor. The others seem equally self-absorbed in their struggle for identity – most obviously ‘Charles/Karl’ with his inability to even choose a name. Their radicalism is generally all talk, with only Hedda, a character previously ignored by the narrative, engaging in some minor vandalism in the museum in the cause of woman’s rights.
If the novel were intended as satire then this might all seem more purposeful, but my feeling is that it is not. It certainly lacks all humour. Eventually the impending arrival of the First World War, which will clearly be used to provide some kind of denouement, seems a reasonable punishment for their infantilism (perhaps intended) and a much needed cull of the cast (less likely).
Above all, the novel is very old-fashioned. The author’s voice is ever present, always telling, frequently lecturing. Coincidentally, I have also been re-reading Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things – a novel also set in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, that plays with structure, genre, and narrative voice, has its own historical notes, has much more to say about the world of that time and the present day, and is funnier. It’s also about half as long, and I would recommend reading it twice before contemplating this. (However, I now have a much clearer understanding of why Wolf Hall appeared quite so brilliant.)