Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt

This book caught my eye in a bookstore one day. The cover was intriguing, the title sounded interesting, and the blurb made me want to read it. Impressively the dragonfly pin on the cover actually does appear in the book - too often cover art is either generic or wrong - this one is perfect.

Set near the beginning of the 20th century, this is a coming-of-age story about a large group of people - not all of them children - living through times of great change. Women are starting to be accepted as people in their own rights, but they must still struggle for it. The structure of society is beginning to shift, and yet change isn't always going to be a good thing. Some of the people who embrace the changes most enthusiastically wind up destroyed by it, and yet refusing to interact with the world is also not the right choice.

The most fascinating thing for me was the uniqueness of all the characters. They were all individuals, and it was obvious that they all saw themselves as the main character in their own narratives, which I found quite unusual. Fantasy novels too often have only one character with different names, and conflict between characters is generated by a lack of communication - but if you could only force people to sit down and actually talk to one another everything would be ok. That is not at all the case here. Many of these people have such conflicting world-views that attempting to communicate is almost futile. This is the best portrayal I have ever see of the difference between someone's mental image of a person, and the reality of that person. Olive (mother of a very large family) has a favorite child - Tom - who she writes stories for and about, and who she feels very close to. But as Tom grows up, he diverges from her mental image of him, and her refusal to acknowledge that he is a person in his own right, not just some aspect of herself, winds up destroying both of them. Her daughter Dorothy, on the other hand, has never been her mother's favorite, has always had a strong sense of herself, and copes quite well even though her path is not easy.

The thing which struck me most is that Olive's family, with its seven children, gorgeous house in the country, mother with an income, parents still obviously in love with one another, totally falls apart in the end. Olive's brother-in-law Basil on the other hand is very straight-laced. Their children are best seen and not heard. It is inconceivable that his son Charles/Karl actually tell his parents about what is going on in his life - and yet in the end, they seem to be doing much better - even adapting to the changing world in a way that seemed unlikely in the beginning. I'm looking for a lesson here - probably something along the lines of the early adopters of cultural revolution wind up being most damaged by it, while those who sit back and let other people take the risks but allow themselves to be flexible when change is forced on them cope much better in the long run.

The final thing which struck me is the ending with World War 1. Initially when the boys go off to war you can't imagine anything more horrible than that they might get killed. But very rapidly you see that dying isn't the worst thing that can happen. And neither is coming home again. It depends very much on the individual, their own experiences, and the home they return to.

I absolutely loved this book. It was even better on re-reading as I had attention to focus on the gorgeous picture Byatt is painting with her words (there are just too many characters to keep track of to possibly focus on the setting the first time around). This is one I think I would like to own, and I suspect I'm going to get my mother a copy for her birthday.

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