Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book

Reading The Children's Book is a little like opening a long-abandoned toy cupboard and finding childhood thoughts and feelings inside, tattered and worn and well-remembered, rather than the playthings one might have expected. We recognize Byatt as masterful even as she begins, for in the first chapter one feels the power of her rich imagination: a young runaway is found sketching designs from originals deep within the bowels of an art museum during turn-of-the-19th-century London. The scurry of the 21st century is nowhere apparent as the author slowly unfolds a complicated set, and peoples it with many characters. This is a book one must slow down to appreciate.

Byatt might liken her novel to the work of a potter--she writes that the air inside a pot is part of the experience of the pot, and the form and glaze on a pot cannot alone capture the pot's essence. Perhaps the thoughts and feelings that a book inspires is what makes a novel art more than simply words alone. Her work is like a jeweler's art--intricate and complicated and filled with symbolism. A novel is like a dramatist's set, where the inclusion of the smallest detail focuses our attention, registers its importance, and sends us thinking in a certain direction.

I had a favorite character, Philip, and at first waited impatiently for him to show again, and when he did, I wanted him to stay. A good book could have been written about just him, the way he thought, his art, and how he made his way in the world. One could have said that of any of the many characters in the book, young and old. Byatt's skill was in revealing believable passions, scalding faults, and the real terrors the world holds for our fragile hopes. We see early 20th century England and its inhabitants in the midst of massive social and political change and realize the power and limitations of human intervention. When we close the book we feel closer in many ways to these paper people than to today's world hurtling past us too fast to comprehend.

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