Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: The Children's Book

The Children's Book
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought I would like this book a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, it hits a number of my pet peeves, and was more of a slog than an enjoyable book. Maybe in retrospect I'll realize what the point was and suddenly like it a lot more. But, the only reason I like it as well as I do was because I shoehorned some themes I agreed with into the text.

The book covers four overlapping families over the course of about 25 years. And that was the problem. Each family has a slew of children, and switched from one kid's POV to the next seemingly at random. Some things, like history trivia, is droned on about at length, while other bits of the plot are left for the reader to figure out. I was never in any one character's head long enough or deep enough to figure out what made anyone tick. It was frustrating.

Most historical fiction exists because there's an echo of a problem from the past in today's society, and so I decided that Byatt was making a remark on children inheriting the sins of the parents, of modern sexual mores having been sold to women as feminism as a Bad Idea, and about parents living through their children without respecting the individuality of the kids. It can be interpreted that way, I think, but the text could probably also loosely be interpreted in 20 other different ways. To me, that isn't a positive.

I couldn't figure out why the book ended where it did. The book, itself, was grim, and descriptions of incest, child molestation, underage sex and the terrible things that went on in those stolid Victorian boarding schools were cringe-worthy enough. But then the tone switched over to the horrors of war, and it was hard to say which the author was trying to say was worse. I kept waiting for some bright spot in these children's lives. I know life is grim and terrible, but I really dislike fiction that reminds me of that.

There were a number of relationships in this novel. Suffice it to say that the healthiest of them was between a 47-year-old man and an 18-year-old girl, who was not 18 when they met.

I had read the description on the back of this book and gotten as far as "interwoven with fairy tales," and thought this would be something I would like to read. I was mistaken. It meandered through the most depressing and grim 25 years I've read in recent memory. I'm sure I could've better steeled myself for such a serious, literary read. Next time, though, I'll probably just skip the literary and stick to my escapist books.

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