161 of 168 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A S Byatt at her best
Complex and many layered this book concentrates on two families and their friends. Olive is a children's author and lives with her sister Violet, husband Humphrey and their children at a country house called Todefright. They live an apparently idyllic Bohemian existence. Benedict Fludd a genius who makes pots lives, by contrast, in Bohemian squalor with his wife...
Published on 13 Jun 2009 by Damaskcat
122 of 128 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is there an editor in the house?
Few books have left me with such mixed reactions. The first half seemed to lack momentum, and it wasn't difficult to pin down why. Too much emphasis on the interior life of the eternally self-absorbed Olive Wellwood and her ceaseless and rather dull fairy tales. Rather too much fanciful description of the artistic impulse and, more specifically, much repetitive detail on...
Published on 18 Jan 2010 by EmmaH
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161 of 168 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A S Byatt at her best,
Complex and many layered this book concentrates on two families and their friends. Olive is a children's author and lives with her sister Violet, husband Humphrey and their children at a country house called Todefright. They live an apparently idyllic Bohemian existence. Benedict Fludd a genius who makes pots lives, by contrast, in Bohemian squalor with his wife Seraphita and children Imogen, Pomona and Geraint. The families are friends and have friends in common - Prosper Cain, a curator at the new Victoria and Albert museum and his children Julian and Florence, and the Methleys who are very much involved with the Fabian Society and the suffragettes.
The book is about the relationships between these people and others but it is just as much about the age they live in from 1895 to 1919. Historical personages flit into and out of the story. The main characters are inluenced by the morals and manners of the age they live in. The background is lush and decadent as the Victorian age gives way to the Edwardian. Social class is an issue and the Labour movement is gathering supporters.
The relationships between the characters are convoluted and nothing is what it seems. The arts and crafts they produce are rich and somehow redolent of decay. All are affected by the Great War and few come through it unscathed. The writing, as one might expect from this author is at once lush and austere. Characters are taken apart with a scalpel and their thoughts and feelings dissected for our entertainment. Descriptions are full of symbolism and many layered meanings. Conversations are cryptic and issues go unresolved and unmentioned.
If I have a criticism of the book it is that the end seemed a little rushed as though the author felt she needed to have an ending - satisfactory or not - for everyone in a very few pages. It seemed unfinished. Maybe this is part of a series and we shall meet at least some of these characters in later volumes. That said this is a masterpiece and every bit as good as the Booker Prize winning 'Possession'.
122 of 128 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is there an editor in the house?,
Few books have left me with such mixed reactions. The first half seemed to lack momentum, and it wasn't difficult to pin down why. Too much emphasis on the interior life of the eternally self-absorbed Olive Wellwood and her ceaseless and rather dull fairy tales. Rather too much fanciful description of the artistic impulse and, more specifically, much repetitive detail on pottery making. Plot often played second fiddle to didactic social historical analysis. And with such a large cast of characters, many are given rather short shrift and potentially dramatic situations bypassed in a sentence or two - for instance, Humphry's ongoing affair with Olive's sister, Violet.
By the second half things began to pick up. We leave the older characters behind, which is a blessing since most of them were frankly odious - only Prosper Cain and Anselm Stern offering a counterbalance to the glut of conscienceless, philandering males. As the Victorian era gives way to the Edwardian, we move into a period of restless social change and emerging feminism that gives an added dynamism to the lives of the younger generation, and generally they acquit themselves with far more wisdom and integrity than their parents. Of course, you can see where it's all going to end - in the mud and trenches of the Great War - but this adds poignancy to their youthful idealism and their struggles to establish themselves in a rapidly changing world. History, as we know, is about to overtake them. And the inevitable denouement was indeed moving, with its rash of dreaded letters and longed-for reunions.
Byatt demonstrates many qualities of a great novelist. She is a consummate social historian, and a master of characterisation - you never fail to believe in her creations as real people. She is an able wordsmith, and a profound thinker in this hugely ambitious, panoramic novel, lingering on larger themes like love and compromise, maturity, selfishness and loss.
But though moved to tears towards the end, I felt this was a deeply flawed book. On reflection, what was really lacking was not a good writer, but a good - and brave - editor. There is a great deal of repetition - we are frequently told the same thing several times, as if Byatt had forgotten that she'd said it already, or had thought that we needed reminding. (For instance, we are told no less than three times throughout the book that Olive was not particularly engaged with the suffrage movement.) Then there are the recurring and somewhat inexplicable mentions of the `beautiful' Rupert Brookes, which along with the frequent references to Oscar Wilde and William Morris gives a feel of some kind of historical name-dropping. While it's perhaps understandable, with a work of this size, that Byatt might lose track of what she has written before and replicate some of it, it is much less forgivable that her editor failed to pick it up and ask her to revise.
Also a more ruthless editor might also have persuaded Byatt to excise those tedious fairy tales. This is not actually a children's book. We don't really want page after page about lost shadows or little people or loblollies or whatever. When the repellent Olive herself describes them as `interminable worms,' I had to laugh at the aptness of her description.
I also agree with other reviewers that the end was rather badly done. After so much focus on Olive at the beginning of the novel, she is all but forgotten at the end. Ditto Philip Warren - interest in him just seems to peter out - though at least he is allowed to survive. Characters are abandoned as if their role in the novel had merely been a cameo. In life, loose ends are a fact; in literature they are something far more unsatisfying. It all feels as if Byatt had simply run out of steam, or finally exceeded her own word count.
I left the book feeling both admiring and a little sad. Admiring, because there is so much here that is truly wonderful. Sad because the novel, allowed to hit the bookstands without the judicious editing it needed, fell just short of the greatness it deserved.
89 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard journeys from innocence to experience,
This is the first Byatt I've read since her marvellous Possession, and I suppose the first point is that it's not remotely similar, except in terms of weight and intent. Make no mistake. This is not an easy read, and I am used to serious books. Certainly, in the first half of the book I found myself unsure as to why my progress was so slow, despite finding time spent with it richly fascinating, and finding myself at moments bowled over and deeply moved by the psychological perspicacity of her writing. For reasons I cannot give away the momentum somehow leaps forward at around the half way mark, to effect a transition between a richly erudite but somehow uphill beginning to an ending, so compelling, throughout which one's heart is rising ever further into one's mouth.
The book brings vividly to life the years between 1895 to the end of the Great War, which is an era I have had little sympathy with before now. The book is about so many things, following an unusually large numnber of characters, through an intricate maze of plot lines and relationships. It is perhaps this shear ambition that made the earlier parts of the book somehow hard to keep going with and to develop visually in the mind's eye.
Being an aging flower-child myself, trying to hang on to whatever threads of idealism life might deign to leave me with, I find I am ever more fascinated by how the radical impulse has manifested in other times, and I suppose that is a main theme of the book, if there is one. We follow a cast of characters that are focussed with more or less sympathy around a household which is connected to all the multifarious expressions of radicalism as it was in this still so innocent time. We encounter Fabianism, with some of its internal dissents, as the moderate path of social activism among the well meaning well to do, and the various brands of extremist currents that operated alongside. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, continental anarchism with more or less commitment to violence, labour movements and the suffragettes. Amongst it all are the ever recurring themes of free thought and, most dangerously, free love. Byatt weaves a fascinating tapestry from this forment of ideas, occasionally shifting context out from the characters to the broad historical context of the day. Her presentation of the Boer war as being as much, if not more, about gold and financial interests as about territorial considerations had, I'm guessing quite deliberately, big resonances with the current debate over Iraq, and served to render the period all the more contemporary.
The book is also about art and artifacts, several of the characters being focussed on the creation of artworks, or on their collection and curation. Part of this theme is the writing of Children's stories by the woman who is the central character of the book, insofar as their is one, and the web of contradictions that builds around devotion to such work in a world full of adult hypocrisy and dark secrets.
What else is the book about? So we spend a lot of time in the Romney Marshes and out towards Dungeness, which despite being adjacent to the metropolis is rendered almost another country by its geography. It's about men and about women, and men and women together. Byatt has an insight into male psychology that is almost uncomfortable at times. It is also about sex being the first stumbling block to all utopian schemes, especially in an age without reliable contraception.
The book is beautifully researched and she has a superb eye for the little known details that render aspects of the time that we think we know about in new and arresting lights; the aftermath of the Titanic, Anglo-German relations in the years leading to the Great War, the extremity of the suffragette struggle, the social impact of Peter Pan and the technical wizardry that went into its theatrical production, and so on.
There is much I am not saying about the book because I do not want to spoil the dynamic for prospective readers. In what I have written I have tried to give an idea of the book's themes and goals, that will hopefully help people to decide whether it is suited to their tastes and interests, but at the timeless human level all I wish to say is in the title I have given this to this review.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a mixture,
Unusually for me, this book took me several weeks to read: I can get through a real page-turner in a matter of hours - alright, a bit longer if it is as large as this one. Admittedly I was away some of the time, but I felt no urgency to take the book with me when I went, although equally I had no problem picking it up again when I came home and carrying on. Why? Because for at least the first half the book progresses extremely slowly. It is of course well written (except for the over-use of commas, which I hope I can be forgiven for pointing out as I am no Booker prize winner myself) and exceptionally well researched. But much of the action takes place very languidly. Other reviewers have covered the plot, so I see no need to explain it myself.
It has been noted by other commentators that the book ends in a rush - and if there were quite as much going on quite so fast early on I feel I would have been more eager to carry on reading. However, there is also, especially in the latter part of the book, a lot of jumping about in time (mentioning what happened in 1907 then reverting to 1902 in a slightly disconcerting fashion, for instance) and taking time out from the characters to go into historical detail. None of this makes the book in any way bad, but at times it seems to be a bit of a lecture on history, stepping back from the characters themselves despite the fact that they are all involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in the events that are taking place in the period - Fabianism, anarchism, suffragism, etc.
It took me some time to get involved in the life stories that are told, but eventually I did get involved, and even felt a little emotional at one of the events in the final pages. I just wish the pace had been more even, without the feeling that the first part of the book was stretched out as far as possible and the ending squeezed into a few pages with the distinct impression that the author wanted to get rid of it all at last. Understandable, maybe, after writing such a marathon of a book, but a shame for the book itself. I have read Possession and other works by Ms Byatt and would happily read more, but I have to say that I finished reading this book feeling that it is a slightly uneven work, even if a very readable one.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard Going but a Worthwhile Read,
Olive Wellwood seems to be living a charmed life when we first meet her in 1895. She has an idyllic home and family life with her Bastable-like brood and clever, charismatic husband, she is beautiful and alluring and, best of all, her children's stories are wildly popular and the height of fashion.
Britain at the end of the Victorian era seems similarly blessed, with the Empire stretching across the globe; however, there are revolutionary stirrings afoot in a deeply divided society. Some of the vast cast of characters, all with artistic and bohemian leanings, take a rather superficial and inellectual interest in the social movements of the day, but as the twentieth century begins their children will find this detachment increasingly difficult to maintain.
AS Byatt's thesis is that the late Victorians and Edwardians as a generation suffered from arrested development, and lived in a sentimental fairyland that crashed horribly around their ears in 1914. Certainly the adults in the novel, and Olive in particular, are unable to adapt to the pressures of the new order and, instead, indulge themselves in building self-indulgent sexually liberated and idealised Utopias that leave their children emotionally maimed and adrift.
It's soon clear that the idyll of the early chapters has a very dark side. The metaphor of fairy tales recurs throughout this long and challenging novel. Some characters seem less secure in their symbolic identities than others, and the quality of the writing as the vast cast grows up can be uneven at times. But the heart of the book - Olive's tragic flaws of sentimentality, narcissism and wilful blindness and their consequences - is devastating and beautifully developed to a shattering cultural and emotional climax.
It's a leisurely read - over 600 densely researched pages, and some of the great setpieces read rather more like an academic history textbook than a novel. There have been a couple of complaints from reviewers that the last scenes, dealing mostly with the First World War, are rushed, but I felt that this was appropriate, as a leisurely way of life was contrasted with mechanised slaughter - if we feel a little punch-drunk by the hammering of numerous deaths and horrors, then presumably that's the effect the writer wanted to convey.
I can't say I loved this book - it was very tough going in places. But it's stayed with me and made me look afresh at a period of modern history that, even today, tends to be bathed in a rosy glow of undeserved nostalgia. The similarities between the late Victorians and baby-boomers such as myself are sobering, to say the least.
In particular, the fate of Olive's eldest son, Tom, will haunt me for years. You can't help feeling sorry for her once she realises the enormity of how she has failed him, and all while she appeared as an icon of happy parenthood in the culture of the day.
It's also fun to speculate on the possible identity of some of Byatt's targets - DH Lawrence, Eric Gill and E Nesbit being the most likely suspects.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More of a cultural study than a novel,
I have huge admiration for A.S.Byatt and her erudition---I loved 'Possession', all her short fiction, and much of the 'Frederica' Quartet, but, oh dear, getting through this book has been a struggle. There are some great passages---a wonderful evocation of the period, some superb pastiche Edwardian fairy tales, and WW1 poetry, but this is a cultural history disguised as a novel. For much of the book, A.S.Byatt is 'telling not showing', and it's difficult to follow the very intermittent plot and engage with the characters---even the best part, the fate of Tom Wellwood, is so obviously borrowed from the real life story of the 'lost boys' of J.M.Barrie and the sad death of Kenneth Grahame's son, that it lacks originality. Most of the time, the book is not a novel at all, it's cultural history, and I feel vaguely disappointed by that, excellent as the writing is much of the time. But there's just too much undigested research in here---and far too little characterisation and plot.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars History not a novel,
A S Byatt, The Children's Book
The Sunday Times blurb on the back cover maintains that `This is the most stirring novel A S Byatt has written since Possession. This may well be the case, but since I was somewhat underwhelmed by the much-touted 1990 Booker winner I was not entirely surprised to find myself struggling with this 600+ page indulgence by a historian posing as a novelist. Novels, for me at least, work best when they show a world from a character's point of view. The less the author tells, the more the reader engages with the central consciousness. But AS Byatt tells us all about the period, the 1890s-1910s, the clothes worn, the wallpapers, the carpets, the food, the political background (Fabianism, suffragettes etc), the ancestry of her characters - at least 50 are named and not easily kept track of, their ambitions, their thoughts, their attitudes to science and art, politics and parentage. In short, the characters are overwhelmed by their setting.
One Amazon reviewer has spoken about the author's `beautiful style.' Style which is `beautiful,' is usually drawing attention to itself and this is certainly true of this book's elegant prose, written not in the voice of any character but from the four-square narrator or chronicler (the give away verb `to be' is conspicuous throughout) who hops in and out of consciousnesses. Our ex- cathedra narrator is very careful and elegant in her word choice ('insouciant' and `exiguous' for example) and revels in truisms and cliché: bland generalisations such as `Knowledge is power' or `Walking fast is a good way of channelling all sorts of emotions, fear, desire, panic,' or `we shall know each other, as the Bible says' with a wink to the reader who picks up on the sexual connotation. If you want style go to Hemingway, where epithets are sparse and usually essential to plot or character.
This novel has no plot and its characters are picked off the wall as social types; they are sensitive or dominant, predators or prey, never ambivalent. Many are little more than names, adding to the mountains of fine detail in an already cluttered book.
The saga covers the progress or regress of three inter-related families who live in changing times, the period when Victorian conventions were being undermined by shocking ideas, such as free love and women's education. Having recently read David Lodge's fictional biography of HG Wells A Man of Parts I was disappointed by the author's reticence in matters of free love.
The major theme of the book is carried by the children's novelist Olive Wellwood, who is compelled to write fairy tales, first for her children and later for herself. This is both protest and escape from the challenges of a new society. Her children, who at first line up behind her, later rebel. There is a strong undercurrent of feminism in the story: women are consistently ignored or exploited, even by the more open-minded males. It all seems terribly dated and contradictory, where liberation is buried under a plea for more fairies and fine dresses. I was reminded of a female Galsworthy; it was almost as if Virginia Woolf had never existed.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars couldn't get into it,
The book is beautifully written and very evocative of the age. As a whistle-stop tour through a period in history and a slice through society it is excellent. It follows the fortunes of 4 families - the Todefright Wellwoods, the London Wellwoods, the Cains and the Fludds - from 1895 to 1918.
However I really couldn't get into it. The characters (and there were a LOT of them!) were passengers - there seemed to be no main protagonist and I felt that whilst I'd read their stories, I hadn't been involved in them. I didn't celebrate or mourn with them and despite the large cast, the book felt strangely claustrophobic because only the characters whose stories were told ever featured - there was no supporting cast, and it showed.
I also (perhaps this was just me!) didn't understand why it started where it did or stopped where it did, or see how and why (or even if, in some cases) the characters had changed or grown through the story.
So overall - beautiful, but not engaging.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Descriptive, lyrical, but overall a disappointment...,
Having loved Byatt's earlier book Possession, I was really looking forward to reading this, particularly after seeing how well-reviewed it was. And yet I have to say I found it disappointing. Byatt has a wonderful way with words, her description of the countryside, the arts in the Museum, the colours and patterns are wonderful, but I was hoping for more than that, and I can't say I found it.
I never felt close to any of the characters, I never felt moved by their fates. They all felt artificial. In fact, much of this book felt artificial to me, like a construct deliberately created to tell the real story of this book, which seems to be the passage of time, the changes in England from the Victorian era to the trenches of the First World War. The families in this book, the Wellwoods, Cains, Fludds and Warrens, just felt like props.
It was an interesting read, certainly, and quite an informative one - I learned a lot I never knew about the Fabian Society, about anarchism and pottery and Arts & Crafts. But it wasn't an engrossing read, it wasn't one of those books that you can't put down. I found I could only read chunks at a time, and by the end it was more determination than enjoyment that brought it to a close.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Children's Book,
A very powerful narrative. Sadly, it is overpowered by the author's extensive research. Too often the reader feels that she is being lectured. Fortunately the research material, though weighty, is relevant and interesting and very informative and therefore digestible. I enjoyed the book very much but I thought it was two books, not one. That said, I feel that I gained insight into a fascinating array of characters caught up in the political, social,artistic and literary upheavals of the turn of the late Victorian/Edwardian period of English history.
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The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt