Monday, May 25, 2009

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Fairy tales can be as tricky as the shadowy creatures inhabiting them, and at a Midsummer Party in 1895, the children of Todefright Hall discover just how much in A.S. Byatt's new novel The Children's Book. These children are the Wellwoods, progeny of children's writer Olive Wellwood and her husband Humphrey who is a Fabian banker (neither he nor Olive too uncomfortable with contradictions such as that). The children have just impressed by a terrifying performance of Cinderella by sophisticated puppets, and are intrigued by the differences between the story they're accustomed to and what they've just seen (Cinderella's stepsisters hacking apart their feet to make the slipper fit, and no fairy godmother or magic pumpkin coach). So it turns out there are many different versions of the stories the children know, and this one is by the Brothers Grimm.

The story wasn't exactly scary, one of the children remarks. Among the grown-ups present in this Bohemian circle is a scholar of fairy tales who agrees, "It should be scary, there was a lot of blood. [But...] these were memories of some other time, long ago, and... they weren't scary./ 'They are just like that,' said Griselda [the child], feeling for what intrigued her, not finding it." "Like that", being precisely what they are; not meant to entrance, to sanitize, to edify, to terrify. Folk tales, not children's tales, which means not geared to any particular audience, and therefore resonating wider.

But these are children who've been reared on fairies, whose parents are idealists committed to keeping magic alive in their own lives. Into this circle has also come Philip Warren, a working class boy run away from the potteries, discovered in the basement of the South Kensington Museum (which is to become the Victoria and Albert), and his presence does provide balance and make clear that the Wellwoods' privilege is rarer than these socially aware children might imagine. But of course Philip is taken with the Wellwoods, and their wild existence, scrambling up trees, riding up and down lanes on bicycles, by the personal stories their mother has written for each of them, by the way that each one of them is his or her own particular sprite.

The difference between the fairy tales the children are accustomed to, the stories their mother writes, and the "like that" stories of the Brothers Grimm is that the latter does not attempt to make itself of another world. Olive Wellwood's stories are meant to be as "through the looking glass", but as the story progresses, we see that life itself really is rather "tale-ish": boys found hidden down hidey-holes, children who appear to be changelings, dubious parentage among the offspring of the Wellwoods and their freewheeling circles, Bluebeardy locked doors with terrible secrets behind them, and vanishings without any explanation.

So that when the children venture out into the world, they find they've been sorely deceived. The world is not a firefly-chasing idyll, and the monsters aren't all fiction-- the abuse sustained by Tom Wellwood at public school traumatizes him for the rest of his life, turning him into a Peter Pan type character. The girls grow up to see that for all their scrambling and rambling, society (and their parents) expects something very conventional about the kind of women they're mean to be. They begin to recognize their parents' infallibilities, and are taken aback by a world more complex than a good-queen/bad-queen dichotomy. And then comes World War One, into which the boys are led by some kind of Pied Piper, by leaders suffering from "the childish failure to imagine the world as it was" (when "the world as it was" is precisely "like that").

The Children's Book is a big book in which time passes quickly, and the reading is gripping. Similarities to Byatt's best-known work Possession have been made for good reason, though this doesn't mean the author is simply replaying an old game. She has embarked upon something sprawling here-- a story about the invention of childhood, about artistry and artfulness, about motherhood, and the status of women, all with an enormous cast of characters, most of whom are made to be tremendously alive. The novel also stands up as historical fiction, though I don't like to use that term about books I like and I loved this one-- there is nothing dusty, sepia-toned about it. The Children's Book is decidedly vivid and surprising.

It is true that by the end of the book, Byatt's immersion of her characters into historical events has perhaps become a bit too complete and the pages sweep by lacking the specificity we've seen in the earlier part of the novel. But so too did history seem to in the early twentieth century, and maybe we can understand it this way. Perhaps it's also the way that time goes when children are grown too, a single day holding far less possibility in and of itself, pages turning faster. Towards the end of the 600+ page novel, but this is the sort one is sad to get to the end of. And here Byatt offers us the possibility of some light, of a happy ending at the end of four years' bloodshed, and so we can dare to hope too that life and the world could also be like that.