Unreadable: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Not long ago (May 2011), my book club read–I should say, tried to read–A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. No one in the group finished it. I think I got the farthest, to about page 100. I’m not out to get A.S. Byatt. At one point in my reading life, I considered myself a big fan. She was the very kind of writer I wanted to be: well read and knowledgeable about many fields of study, literary, feminist, serious, rich in ideas. Possession is great fun to read, accessible enough, kind of nerdy-cool–in a cashmere sweaters, suede elbow patches, dusty attics, research is sexy kind of way. While Byatt is certainly an intellectual sort of writer, in books like Angels and Insects she’s able to mash her magpie mind with a romantic, ornate sensibility. I read and loved Babel Tower, but have found her last three books, The Biographer’s Tale, A Whistling Woman and The Children’s Book, impossible to get into. Is it me, or the books? The Children’s Book was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, so obviously someone likes it. But the book club just couldn’t find enough to compel us to continue reading. On the whole, the complaints were too many characters, a lack of interesting plots (we found Philip’s story interesting but too sporadic), and a failure to render compellingly the world she was imagining. For my part, I suspected she had a grand plan, was laying the foundation for some hefty themes, but couldn’t shake the feeling that she was doing all this at the expense of STORY. Has Byatt forgotten that story, and if not story, then character, is king?

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2 Responses to Unreadable: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

  1. Jill Bateman says:

    I am so glad that you said that about AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book! I have been an AS Byatt junkie (and too, wished that I could write like her….), but I found The Children’s Book totally inaccessible. I think I did finish it, only because I kept hoping the magic would kick in!
    Could you ask them at BT to post your TV spot to their website please? Don’t they know that I don’t get Calgary BT here? Jeez… xoxo

  2. Lori Gilbert says:

    I thought there was a lot of possibility in The Children’s Book, but YES, definitely too long and too many tangled plot threads waiting to be resolved. I never got to the war segment, and felt strongly that I MIGHT be able to manage this book if it were split into a trilogy of novels dealing with different time periods, and each time period could be from the point of view of a different character. Byatt is a great writer, & I would love to be able to finish this particular work at some point. Did you read the earlier novels leading up to Babel Tower? The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. I think Whistling Women had some good things going on, but resolved and EXPLAINED everything a bit too much.

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