Ok so. Once upon a time there is a storyteller and there are children (like, lots of them. And then the storyteller has a few more and her husband has one on the side, and a child shows up in the basement of a museum, and then his sister walks many miles to join him, and then at some point these children start having children and what I’m trying to tell you is that the characters are many. Mebbe take some notes). Olive writes fairy tales for each of her children, and then also for the World At Large. This becomes financially handy when her banker-husband quits his job so that he can become a gentleman-rabble-rouser.
Meanwhile, the hoard of children decides what it wants to do when it grows up, and then goes about doing those things. And that’s kind of it. Except that all the doings and things = snapshots of an age, and it’s fascinating. Here is the girl who wants to become a doctor, and here is the girl who agitates for the vote, and here is an impressionable young fellow being drawn into German anarchy while this one over here makes pots. And it’s SO VICTORIDWARDIAN, with girls getting accidentally pregnant and then being whisked off to the ‘seaside’ for nine months and with sensitive young men suffering boarding-school injustices and then committing suicide in spectacularly melodramatic fashion and with all the sex that’s ostensibly being repressed seeping in at every crack.
And this is going to sound eight ways from condescending, but Byatt is a readers’ author. Not because of her eighty-dollar words, and not because her sentences are all majestic heaps of clauses (although partially because these things), and I’m not saying that if you don’t worship at her altar that her you’re not a ‘reader.’ But I do not like arty films because I am not film-savvy, and I have a hard time believing that anyone who doesn’t read hella books is going to be able to hoe their way through this. Because there are Characters and Plot, but there are SO MANY characters that you can’t really invest in any of them, and then she’ll break off the plot for a bit to muse on the era and if you don’t enjoy to read for the sake of to read, you might mentally head out for a pint of milk at these points.
The Children’s Book is a challenge for the mind, and not one to be read if you are surrounded by distractacons, but a weighty and satsifying thing.