Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Now for something more intelligent...

Last night I finally finished ‘The Children’s Book’ by AS Byatt. I feel like I’ve been reading it forever. I started it one month ago on Koh Chang and I know this because I used some hotel notepaper to write a list of the characters as they were introduced.

I’m not ashamed to say that I picked the book off the shelf because of the stunning cover. My scan here doesn’t do it justice. There’s a lot of gold (the title, the border decoration, and on the artefact) set against a rich mottled blue. It’s beautiful. I read the blurb and much of the novel is set in Romney Marsh which is not far from where my novel is set. The story follows two generations from the end of the 19th century to the end of the First World War.

The story is set constantly within the context of the day – and that’s nearly twenty five years of ‘the day.’ Often it wasn’t woven into the story and the narrative stops for large chunks of political and social comment and background. That said I’m fascinated by the period but it may make it hard to read for those that aren’t. In this respect, it reminded me of Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. Not just that the period is similar (slightly earlier in the nineteenth century from memory but I can’t recall when the story closes though it does cover the second generation of characters) but also the documentation of long passages of research about psychiatry. Both books took me a long time to read because I am not a skipper of such bits!

The story’s main focus is the family of Olive and Humphrey Wellwood but it extends in some detail to other, interconnected families and individuals. Olive is a famous writer of children’s stories (at a time when it was suggested that the best writing of the day was written for children but read by adults, eg JM Barrie, E Nesbitt and Kenneth Grahame.)

It opens at the V&A Museum when two of the children whose lives we follow discover a boy from ‘Burslem in t’potteries’ hiding in the bowels of the Museum. The boys take their discovery to the grown ups: Olive, and Prosper Cain, the Special Keeper of Precious Metals, whom Olive is consulting for research for one of her books. But this is no Oliver Twist: these people are artists and Fabians and they take the boy in and he is found a place with a local master potter, Benedict Fludd. The Wellwood’s Midsummer party follows rapidly on and we meet more characters, neighbour and theatre director Augustus Steyning and his guest, and old acquaintance of Olive, German puppetmaster, Anselm Stern. Further characters are introduced and the stage is set for the subsequent twenty odd years of saga.

I loved it and I’d really recommend the book to anyone who’s interested in the era.

Now, what book to choose next?

12 comments:

BEAST said...

how about "Running with scissors"?

word verification is Coning! but I'm not, honest.

JJ Beattie said...

Husband - for that is who The Beast is - are you trying to con me into reading that book? That book that I have refused to read 32 times already? And do you remember the other book in which I invested 1400 pages of my time after you wholeheartedly recommended it? And the whining that ensued? Do you remember?

Shall we not go there?

PS To con: it is 'conning' but then you are a scientist and you can't spell...

Carol said...

Ooohhh 'Running with scissors' is a good book!! Not a very happy story but a good read!!

What's the other book your talking about?

C x

JJ Beattie said...

Carol, yeah but our venn diagram of agreements over books, is fairly slender, no? It doesn't remotely surprise me that you enjoyed Running with Scissors because you like bonkers books!

It was the Quincunx. Wonderful book but not for me...

BEAST said...

and Owen Meany. That was a worthwhile 1000 pages, n'est pas?

JJ Beattie said...

Owen Meany was great but even during that I seem to remember whining a great deal.

I think, maybe, I just do not like you telling me what to read...

sheepish said...

I assume you have read as byatt's Possession. thanks for the recommendation for The Childrens Book it will go on my wish list. Have you read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Shadow of the Wind by ? can't remember for the moment. Anyway all excellent books.

Queenie said...

Tender by Mark Illis. Terrific contemporary family saga, and only 164 pages long.

SueG said...

I was wondering about that book. She's so good. I'm glad it didn't disappoint.

JJ Beattie said...

Sheepish, I haven't read Possession but I do plan to get hold of a copy. I've got the Book Thief but haven't read it and I've read the Shadow of the Wind.

Oooh, Queenie, thank you. That sounds good.

Sue, no it didn't. It was wonderful.

Debs said...

Love that cover. My mother sent me a dragonfly brooch in the post today.

HelenMHunt said...

That does sound fascinating, and I agree about the cover. It's beautiful.