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Customer Review

129 of 136 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is there an editor in the house?, 18 Jan. 2010
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This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 30 Apr 2010 14:26:44 BDT
Penguinista says:
Good summary - just what I was feeling. Why no editor? So much is wonderful here, but the piling on of detail became tremendously frustrating. Totally agree with the proliferation of loblollies and little people... highly annoying. Thanks for a good review.

Posted on 11 May 2010 10:29:43 BDT
Hel S says:
A masterful review which more or less sums up my feelings, although I would hedge towards four stars rather than three.

Posted on 15 Nov 2010 16:18:30 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Nov 2010 16:19:04 GMT
katetudor says:
Absolutely spot on - a glorious failure. The names (Pomona, Todefright!), too precious, annoying.
I struggled to like this book, while admiring the breadth of the author's ambition, sensing it would end
with the effects on the protagonists of the social and cultural watershed that was the Great War.
A major writer, though this is not her best work.
An exceptional cover design - all credit to the illustrator!

Posted on 24 Jan 2011 14:05:51 GMT
Sherley says:
I couldn't agree more with these remarks - I didn't even bother to read the fairy story bits in the end. I also got tired of the constant lecture and potted histories of the fabians and the suffragettes and why wasn't the repulsive Herbert Methley held to account in the end? I only really stuck with it to find out what happened in the end and as expected it was WW1 which seemed to be rushed through just to tidy everything up.

Posted on 1 Apr 2011 10:45:43 BDT
Many have already given their backing to your review, but I'm going to as well. This is basically exactly how I viewed the book and, were I as elegant a writer as you, this would be precisely the review I would give. Perfectly sums up the book. In places it shows that it is/could be a great book. But there are just too many pitfalls.

Posted on 3 Sep 2011 22:33:27 BDT
Cannot agree with you about the fairy tales. They were part of what brought the whole thing to life for me! Highly symbolic, as well, for example Tom seeking to return to his mother's womb!
It seems clear that Olive was based , at least in part, on E Nesbitt who also wrote wonderful stories of magic.

Posted on 22 Jun 2012 13:58:03 BDT
Kimberley says:
Excellent review. I was struggling to think how to record a review of this book for my own purposes as there was so much to pick up on but you have managed to do it very concisely - difficult task considering the scope of the book. Re occasional over detailing/ repetition and issues with the ending, things like the random insertion of the 3 poems towards the end looked indulgent and meant they lost impact. However, I 'admire' what Byatt has achieved here and so I would agree with Helena below on wanting to edge towards 4 stars although you are so right about where it was let down and that it could have been that much better.

Posted on 28 Apr 2014 16:08:46 BDT
S. P. Rumsey says:
Excellent review, I couldn't agree more.
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