Friday, May 1, 2009

Magical Byatt

I have been a fan of Byatt since I read Possession last year. I have her quartet on my shelves but haven’t attempted anything other than the pairing of novellas Angels & Insects (which I liked, but not nearly so much as Possession). I am hesitant to claim that The Children’s Book (to be published by Knopf in October 2009) will be as popular and award-winning as Possession was, but there’s no doubt that Byatt is making use of her most witching powers as author.

An extensive tale that stretches from 1895 to World War I, covering the end of the Victorian era, through the Edwardian to the fall of the Golden Age in the trenches, the story hinges around the Wellwoods, an English family with Fabian and socialist leanings. Olive, the mother of a large brood, is the author of children’s books and fairy tales and is writing a fairy story for each of her children as an ongoing project (hence the book’s title).

The book begins with two boys (one is Olive’s son) discovering a third boy, Philip, living in the South Kensington museum. Philip, in a nod to fairy story conventions, is welcomed into the Wellwoods’ world, allowed a hand up and thus given the key to unlocking his creative potential. While he is observing the Wellwood clan (parents, children, maiden aunt, cousins, old and new lovers, friends, fellow intellectuals and socialists) at work and at play, we step into his shoes and long to be invited into the heart of the family.

But Todesfright, the magical home nestled in the bosom of the forest, is not to remain impermeable. Time marches on: rulers die and are replaced, wars begin, end, and begin again. Old lovers are exchanged for new; radical ideology has its consequences. The children age, they develop, and we know that the shadow of World War I is lurking grimly in the future.

Tom, the golden boy whom Olive cannot help but love most, is traumatized and disappears within himself. Analytic Dorothy wants to become a Doctor, the younger children fight to be visible rather than just one of the “young ones.” The boys are required to be educated and excel; the girls assert themselves and go study, apply themselves to a craft, travel, make babies. Byatt shows a knack for developing each child and character as separate from the other; even if the character does not have much stage-time, their very real shadows, fears, and accomplishments are whispered through the grapevine.

Both Possession and the Children’s Book are similar in subject matter: literature, art, Victoriana (Byatt’s forte). But while Possession is set in the present looking back to the nineteenth century, in the new novel the narrative ages with the Empire. Where Possession is filled with lyric poetry and Breton myths, the Children’s Book is much more Germanic in both tone, legendy and emphasis. In Possession, poetic manuscripts and diary entries were revealed to the reader. In the Children’s Book, the reader is allowed to read the fairy stories Olive is writing for each of her children.

Byatt is skilled at introducing historical figures along with her very believable characters: a chance encounter with Wilde, words exchanged with Rodin in Paris, or an off-hand discussion of J.M. Barrie fits naturally with the narrative. Her cameos are not forced, nor emphasized. They appear, are recognized, and bow out.

Unfortunately, the long chunks of expositional writing that Byatt indulges in cause the story to catch and drag while we are overwhelmed by the rushing information of the age: the museums, the displays, the wars and generals, the politicians and suffragettes. The mode switches from story to fact, from drama to research. While not unthankful for the meticulous research, or for the asides which set the stage, I wish it had not been so starkly written, so clearly shifting gears.

A tale of fairy stories, eerie puppetry, pottery, free love, socialism, women’s rights, homosexuality, birth, death, war – there is very little that this epic tale does not include. I sunk into it, and it was very difficult to be pulled back out of the trance. It was just dense. I will be interested to see what sort of acclaim Byatt receives when this book is published in America (I believe it is already out in Britain). She is touring the U.S. later this year, and her closest stop to me is Portland, so I might take the train…

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