Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt (Spoilers)

I am not sure how I came by my copy of this book - I'm guessing it was a long-ago library book sale - ? In any case, it's been gathering dust on my TBR pile for many years now, even though I have enjoyed a couple of the author's other books, so I have no idea why I didn't immediately read this book.

As it happens, now that I have read it, I don't know what to think. The word that kept coming to my mind while I was reading was "self-indulgent." My heavy paperback copy is 675 pages and I just feel that the same story could have been told in less than half the pages. Page-long paragraphs ramble endlessly, but amount to nothing more than lists and overly wordy descriptions we don't need. There are so many characters it's hard to keep track of them all, especially once we find out that two of the men in the book are basically the fathers of more than half the characters, since their chief pastime seems to be seducing anything female that walks within 3 feet of their trousers. This book had more extramarital pregnancies and childbirth scenes than the last several hundred books I've read combined.

Most of the characters are enigmatic and seem to do things for no particular reason, as we are never allowed to find out what makes them tick. Characters are surly and unlikeable and then they walk into the sea and their dead bodies wash up on shore a bit later. There is no character development, no relation to the plot, it just happens and then we are on to the next inconvenient pregnancy.

The most frustrating part of the book is that I have a great interest in the time period (late 1800s - World War I). So much happened in those years, including women's suffrage, but the author seems to simultaneously ramble on about and gloss over these events in favor of yet another scene of someone confessing to being pregnant yet again. It's clear that the author did research, but I feel like it wasn't really put into play as much as it could have been. For example, one of the characters does go to prison for being a suffragette who is halfheartedly attempting to sabotage a museum to gain attention for the cause. We hear about how she tries to resist eating, and is force fed, and spends hours walking around her jail cell, but to be honest these are all things I read about in books when I was a kid - no deep research was needed to produce these scenes, I could have written them. We've now seen so many WW I scenes in movies and in other books that it wouldn't take ages of research to produce a few scenes set in that conflict either. It seems like such a wasted opportunity.

To be fair, some parts of the book were interesting. The puppets and the plays were intriguing, and the stories Olive writes for the children were obviously tied in to their lives (even if that was heavy handed and obvious). I feel like there was a cool story buried in here somewhere but it never materialized. I can't recommend this one I'm afraid.

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