Sep 18, 2016

The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt

There is a certain reserved quality to A. S. Byatt's writing, very British in its bearing, that I enjoy but have a hard time reading quickly. Byatt's books are always meticulously researched and beautifully, deliberately written. It makes for a heady combination and you don't want to miss anything. Every fact is important, every descriptive detail plays a role. This does, however, make for rather slow reading, though it is always enjoyable.

The Children's Book follows a group of children and adults from the late 1800s through the end of World War I. The adults are artists, writers, Fabians, and socialists; they live mostly in the country and let their children, for the most part, run wild. Their parenting methods are perhaps confusing to their young, and their relationships with each other are just as muddled. The main family is the Wellwoods of Todefright: Olive writes children's books and Humphrey works for the Bank of England while writing socialist articles under pen names. They have seven children, but not all of them are both of theirs, though the children don't know it. We also follow Humphrey's brother's family, the family of a famous potter, and several outlying relatives and acquaintances thereof. As the children grow up, their relationships with their parents, each others parents, and each other shift and reform like the dunes of England's coast. They are intelligent, artistic, and driven, one way or another. One becomes involved in the brutal women's suffrage movement, another becomes a doctor, another a scholar. And then, with utter abruptness, they are each destroyed in some way by WWI.

It seems a cheat to spend 500 pages with these characters, watching them grow, only to have them decimated in the last part of the book. But that, I believe, is the point. WWI's cost of life was staggering; there was not a soul in Europe unaffected. It is a plea, a testament, to juxtapose such sudden, brutal loss of life and hope with young lives searching for meaning and connection. The English boys didn't want to kill the German boys anymore than the Germans did them, but the human bond was subjugated to money and land and power. What a sad thing, and what a beautiful novel.

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