Say what you like about the Beast from the East, but the upside of cancelled plans was one TOTALLY FREE DAY. What would any self-respecting bookworm do with a totally free day?! Read of course!
As one of my 2018 goals is to read more long books, I decided to bite the bullet and pull out a big book that had been sitting on my shelf for a while – The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, coming in at 618 pages.
This is a historical fiction that follows a group of families and their children as they grow up together against the backdrop of England’s transition from the Victorian era to the Edwardian. Births, deaths, affairs, scandal, it’s your classic big family saga.
Now, I’m a fast reader. I had these grand visions of blitzing a 618-pager in my exciting free day, imagine! Several hours in and I’d barely made it a quarter of the way through. That may have coloured my views on this book as I am nothing if not attached to my ability read a lot of books in a short space of time.
Five days later, I have some thoughts about this beast of a book. Be warned, it is riddled, RIDDLED with spoilers, so if you still have high hopes for this book, exit here!
- I am morally opposed to long books that don’t need to be long books. Pages and pages of social history and scenes that added literally nothing to the story, the first half was a STRUGGLE. Imagine the moment early on in this trek where I looked at my Bookly app and it informed me I would need another FIFTEEN HOURS to finish the book. The first half really dragged, and then as soon as it started to get interesting it descended into almost farcical absurdity.
- Case in point: the adults in this book were outrageously awful, but somehow Byatt manages to not make it obvious until suddenly it’s in your face all at once. It was like stealth awfulness. Sure Humphry cheated on Olive, I guess some guys do that. Oh now he got another woman pregnant. Now the woman has turned up and they’re all just hanging out together, coz that’s normal. And it makes total sense that the baby with Olive and the baby with Marion are BOTH called Robin. What? He’s also sleeping with Olive’s sister Violet you say? And some of Olive’s kids are actually Violet’s kids? But they decided to raise them all as Olive’s kids? Okay…oh then he just casually tries to rape his daughter Dorothy- but WAIT it’s fine because it turns out Olive is also a cheeky philanderer (is anyone faithful in this book?!) and Dorothy is not actually Humphry’s daughter. He just loves her so much in a non-paternal way despite being otherwise very paternal for the last fifteen years. Hey, it’s not incest if you’re not actually related, she only THOUGHT you were her father for most of her life. Totally acceptable. These events pretty much occurred back to back because why stagger the drama?
- This leads me on to the veritable EPIDEMIC of casual child abuse. It is heavily implied that Benedict has been abusing his daughters when Elsie (the sort-of maid) finds a secret cupboard full of pottery in the shape of his naked daughters. This comes before the Humphry-Thinks-It’s-Okay-To-Rape-His-Technically-Not-Related-Daughter part, because if it’s in one family, might as well chuck it in to another?
- Why the F did the women KEEP succumbing to Herbert Methley? He was SO GROSS and still managed to seduce Olive, Elsie AND Florence – not to mention impregnating TWO of them. Mini Herbert Methleys running around…shudder.
- Also, Pomona repeatedly sleepwalking naked into Philip’s bed is never explained.
- Olive is possibly the worst mother I’ve ever come across. Totally self-absorbed and wrapped up in her fairytales. She has so, so many children but only gives a crap about Tom – but only up to the point where she thinks it’s a great idea to turn the fairytale she wrote for him into a play that she doesn’t tell him about until the day before it opens. She also neglects to tell him his character is played by a female actress. So he drowns himself. Because that’s a logical next step.
- Benedict Fludd aka crazy pottery genius / suspected child abuser also drowns himself. Byatt apparently couldn’t come up with two different deaths.
- Prosper Cain, the last guy I was holding onto as being an all-round good chap just wakes up one day and switches from having paternal feelings towards Imogen, the girl who is the same age as his daughter who he rescued from the possibly abusive father (see point 3), to proposing to her. And then they got married almost immediately and he impregnated her at almost exactly the same time as his daughter was being impregnated by Herbert Methley. Florence subsequently goes abroad to have the mini-Methley, meets a random German nurse and marries him so she isn’t faced with the awkward Child Out Of Wedlock scenario. Why worry about how one’s character is going to defy social norms when you can throw in the classic “Hey this random German nurse I met in an Italian convent will marry me”?! Ah that old chestnut.
- Back to the subject of death. After making it through the first half where almost nothing happens, despite the introduction of an extraordinary number of characters, apparently Byatt suddenly realised that she had in fact introduced too many people, so just started killing them off with wild abandon.
- Benedict Fludd, drowned.
- Tom, drowned.
- Violet LITERALLY DROPPED DEAD. I had to reread this scene three times because I couldn’t comprehend how we got from A to B. She comes in carrying a plate of scones, drops the plate, and DIES. The sentence reads “she was quite dead” – and THAT’S IT. At this point I can only speculate that Byatt has a secret real-life enemy called Violet. That’s the only feasible explanation for the low key emotional torture that is Violet living most of her life as her sister’s unpaid housekeeper / nanny to Olive’s MANY children while Olive wafts around writing shit fairytales; not to mention being one of her brother-in-law’s mistresses and bearing TWO of his children but having to pretend that they were actually her niece and nephew (which is never explained). Followed by the aforementioned Smashed Plate / Casually Dead Family Member debacle. It was like Byatt put so much creative effort into drowning Benedict and Tom that she just hit a wall and couldn’t even be bothered to give Violet a decent death.
- THEN WORLD WAR ONE HAPPENED. Arguably, the format of the book should have been a clue that this was going to happen, as it was charting a very linear course through English history, we’d just covered the suffragettes, Hedda had been forced fed in jail it was all very traumatic, and yet it genuinely did not occur to me that this was where we would end up. “Hmm this story has already gone on for over 500 pages and there’s still far too many characters, how can I cull several off at once… I know – WAR!” Also known as the quick and easy way to kill off almost all of your male characters in one hit. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make a joke out of the real and obscene loss of life in the world wars, but by this point, the characters were dying at such a rate I was losing my grip on reality. This book needed to end, I refused to spend a sixth day on it and was growing concerned that Byatt was going to chuck in an extra few hundred pages to take us all the way to the Holocaust. Not even a drunk fiancé coming home in search of affection was enough to prise me away from the last fifty-seven pages. Said fiancé wasn’t impressed, but really he should know who he proposed marriage to.
You might be bemused to learn that I gave this book three stars. I could tell you it’s because I was genuinely hooked for parts of it and I wanted to know how it ended and it wasn’t as bad as the books I’ve given two stars (e.g. The God of Small Things which was PAINFUL). Really, the three stars are for myself for making it through this absolute mind fuck of a book.