Between the covers

The Children’s Book

AS Byatt

When an author reaches a certain status in the literary world they’re given a lot of leeway; which is unfortunate in this case because a very good book could have been brilliant with a harsher edit.

AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is a story charting the destruction of a close avant garde family and their wider social circle, including lovers and former lovers.

The book is set at the turn of the 19th century and beginning of the industrial revolution.

It’s incredibly well researched and herein lies the problem: sometimes the book reads like a list of historical facts from the period. It also includes an enormous amount of detail about the philosophical and political movements of the time; certainly a fascinating period of thought, ideas and change but the novel would have benefited from a tighter cut and not being so caught up in including the level of background.

The story behind the artistic and hedonistic Fabian family and their descent into dysfunction is compelling and beautifully constructed. Byatt has a lot to say about the price paid by a younger generation for the careless hedonism and self-obsession of their parents.

She also follows the theme of ageing and how it differently affects men and women, particularly in relation to being sexually attractive and sexual.

Byatt’s skill as a storyteller is immense; she guides the reader through a mixed narrative showing different characters’ responses to the same situation. Her characters are emotional, flawed and don’t always behave well but her skills as an artisan with words mean you empathise and care what they do.

The Children’s Book is a really good read but it’s heavy going and long. Had Byatt had a braver and more brutal editor who was prepared to tighten up the story and make the book less dense, it would have been even better.

It’s a joy to read a brave and intelligent novel but this is not a perfect book; like Byatt’s characters, it has flaws, but they can be forgiven because of the beautiful and compelling writing.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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