Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fantasy quelled by reality; plot by cast

A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book contains a compelling confusion of fairy tales, families, sexual awakenings, and pottery. Victorian England is dying out and the 1900s are on the cusp; Byatt attempts to take it all in stride. She has a huge cast of characters to perform acts of rebellion, desire and distress. There is someone for every reader: author, anarchist, adulterer, child-at-heart. And if no one meets your fancy Olive Wellwood will inspire you to invent your own.
The novel starts with small mysteries, art, and a reigning matriarch who deals in fantasy. A boy, Phillip, is found hiding in the basement of a museum and his eye for design is the piece of magic that carries him from the industrial dirt of London into the pastoral beauty of the countryside where contentment and simplicity seem to reign.
Olive Wellwood is the matriarch who transports him. She is an author of fairy tales and the mother of a sprawling brood. The Wellwoods’ home is the perfect backdrop for the childish merriment she encourages. The adults take part in the magic as well. They host a Midsummer’s party annually, indulging their own fantasies, enlisting foreign puppeteers and participating in lengthy discussions about the problems of poverty and corruption in England. Olive writes for children while her husband Humphrey faces the problems of the world with words of his own.
In addition to the Humphrey Wellwoods, Byatt follows the children of his brother Basil, the Cains and the offspring of the eccentric and genius potter, Benedict Fludd. The latter is a mysterious and frightening force. Phillip becomes his apprentice and the relationship between art and its executor is fascinating. Fludd must be handled with kid gloves; his rages and the distress of his family are permissible because of his brilliance. Byatt successfully introduces the reader to pottery and examines the refuge provided by creativity and the delicate balance between genius and mania.
Entering further into the worlds of these families, the atmosphere of gaiety splits at the seams. Humphrey is repeatedly unfaithful and her children are largely cared for by her spinster sister, Violet. Sexual exploration inserts itself to the continually more tangled web of lives. This force has a tricky combination of fantasy and reality. The consequences are all too tangible and the repercussions are born by the women. Interspersed with the history of these families are segments of Olive’s fairy tales as well as summaries of the changing temperature in Europe as the years race forward; it is easy to see why the fantasy is preferable.
As they grow, the children begin to push against the magical inventions that encapsulate their lives. One finds refuge in Marxism, another pursues medicine. Those who cannot look beyond, remain in an unsettling limbo. Reality bursts in with the arrival of the First World War and has damaging effects on those who are unequipped with the tools to face the harshness of the world. Fantasy withers in the face of reality. The lucky ones can use it as a tool, but fantasy cannot be sustained. Byatt reveals that if one has nothing else, one is lost.
The strength of Byatt’s novel seems to fade as the vibrancy of her characters is dulled by experience. Byatt’s characters are distinct but the cast is too large. One or two minor characters wind up playing crucial roles and their importance feels misplaced without a clear understanding of them when others are known quite well. There are too many shrouds when there should be moments of clarity. When Byatt’s control of her complex cast slips, the book falls to pieces.

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