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90 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard journeys from innocence to experience, 25 July 2009
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This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Sep 2009 05:48:46 BDT
Basilides says:
This is another one of John's reviews that has been hit with a wave of negative votes appearing overnight. This has been happening to a lot of good reviewers recently in a concerted campaign.

Posted on 17 Sep 2009 07:52:50 BDT
LittleMoon says:
I did wonder at the number of negative votes. It's a shame, because this is a really excellent review for prospective readers which gives a real flavour of the novel, without giving anything away.

Posted on 2 Jan 2010 21:03:23 GMT
Great review, thankyou, cogent and full without 'spoilers'!

Posted on 9 Apr 2010 15:32:55 BDT
C. Rees says:
Having read 'Possession' I can understand what John is saying. I have put this on my 'to read' list as it sounds from this description really worth while. At least I know exactly what to expect and the high number of stars means the journey will be worth while. Thanks John

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jun 2010 21:09:46 BDT
I beg to differ, I am only 6 chapters in and am struggling with the book! I thought I would check out the reviews to see if it was worth continuing with only to be told things that happen later on in the book. What's the point in me reading the book now, I may as well just read the reviews!!!!

Posted on 8 Apr 2011 13:11:51 BDT
E. Marsden says:
Excellent review, I couldn't agree more, especially where you said the era it covers "is an era I have had little sympathy with before now" - I felt the same and it opened my eyes to the realities of suffrage and war. I found it so sad how the friendships with the Germans decayed, I hadn't realised before reading this book how close our ties with Europe had been.
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John Ferngrove
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Location: Hants UK

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