Arty, Crafty & a Little Bit Potty
The English Arts and Crafts movement is the mothership to our own Arroyo arts culture, and A.S. Byatt’s new novel, The Children’s Book, though a bit too teeming (why name one boy Gerald and one Geraint when you can make all 20 of your major characters’ names up?), explores the doings of a group of artists, writers and leftist intellectuals living in turn-of-the-last-century England. These multli-generational exponents of free love, anarchy, beauty and art would not be fazed by today’s hipster Silverlake scene.
Caught up in the great movements of their time (the Victoria and Albert Museum is nearly a character in itself, Kenneth Grahame and J.M. Barrie are topics of conversation, William Morris is venerated, the Paris Exhibition is visited, and the Boer War is fought), the friends/neighbors/relatives/lovers are witnesses to the dawning of modern attitudes about childhood, sex, work and class. Though a visually compelling read – Byatt rhapsodises over pottery, puppetry, clothing and the countryside of Kent — the plot is as messy and sprawling as the lives of the too-many characters. Byatt seems to be mimicking the compulsive storytelling of matriarch (and authorial stand-in?) Olive Wellwood, who both writes children’s stories for publication and keeps a book of stories for each of her nine children (hence the title – sort of). She’s a thoroughly modern-seeming late-Victorian woman with a thriving career, an interesting past and… hey, I’m not going to spoil it!
For Byatt fans, this is more Angels and Insects than Possession (the latter remains her tour de force and one of my all-time favorite novels). Even though it’s just shy of 700 pages, The Children’s Book often feels as if Byatt is hurtling through time and ideas, trying to cram as much as she can into a conventional novel, which could have become two or three related books.
The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (hardcover, $26.95); available at Vroman’s, Flintridge Bookstore, Apostrophe Books and many other local booksellers.