05 August 2009

The Children's Book, or: AS Byatt and JM Coetzee, Mud-Wrestling

When the Booker Prize longlist came out I was all, I know who's going to win. Even though I've read exactly one of the books on the list. That book being the one I think will win. And then since I'm familiar with exactly one other writer on the list, I decided his book had the next best odds, and that he, JM Coetzee, and the first author, AS Byatt, should mud-wrestle for the prize.

It's funny because they are old and serious and refined.

(Though thinking about it now, it actually seems really scary, her all florid and anti-postmodernist, him the spare post-colonialist. It's a fight i don't want to see.)

But so yes, I've read AS Byatt's The Children's Book, even though it doesn't come out in the states until this fall, because a generous soul smuggled it back for me from England. It was a daring adventure of legally bringing a book into the country, of great risk and excitement and spy glamour.

And, says the girl who didn't have to lug an extra hardcover book through customs, incredibly worth it. I've been a Byatt fan since James and Allison had me read Possession at some point in college. Even studying Possession in a (post-)postmodern lit class [gratuitous link to my nerd/fox professor] couldn't ruin Dame Byatt for me, even if that book is kind of frighteningly anti-feminist at points. By then I'd gotten deeper into the Byatt ouevre, and was hooked. The summer before my senior year of college I read through all 2000-odd pages of Byatt's Frederica quartet, four very different books that follow our heroine from teenager to... I dunno, maybe in her 50s? But still, it was an intense, immersive month. And since then, lo those six years ago, there has been no new Byatt. I re-read The Biographer's Tale, I read some amaaaaazing short stories, I read some of her sister's equally if differently glorious writing, but nothing new from Antonia Susan. Until now.

And, lucky for us who build expectation with anticipation, The Children's Book is amazing, and well worth the wait. It's at once an epic, ambitious historical novel and an intimate character study (of, like, fifteen different characters). I can't begin to fathom the years of research that went into this novel - it has a special pleasure for nerds who like knowing stuff. Was I ever interested in Victorian pottery? No. Am I now? Yes. The liberal politics of the era are even more fascinating. And Byatt describes and colors them vividly while giving us an extended web of characters whose richness is even more amazing for the fact that we follow them for, like, thirty years.

And okay, the book is not perfect. Byatt tries a narrative thing or two that I'm not sure worked for me, but in a way that when I finished the book, once I wiped a stray tear or two away, I wanted to reread it, immediately, because it's too much of a thing to hold after just one reading. Of course, this rare copy already has a waiting list going. You know, all my Byatt nerd friends. But as soon as everyone's gotten in a first read, I'll tackle it again, for the intense pleasure of living in the story when it's brilliantly swimming along, and to get another look at the things Byatt tries that I maybe wasn't ready for the first time around. If you like: England, novels, teenagers, politics, ceramics, museums, countryside, sex, puppet theatre--

Oh my god, I forgot about the puppet theatre! AS Byatt + puppet theatre, I mean, could I not have just died happy right then and there?! And her descriptions of puppet plays are magical and mysterious. Oh, such good writing, and so wonderful to have one of my favorite writers writing about one of my favorite non-writing things. A surprising and wonderful confluence, there.

There was a point about half way through the book when, reading on my way somewhere on the A train, I almost started crying. Which is not rare or weird for me, but I almost started crying this time because I realized that, eventually, the book would be over. Ahhh, it's so good. Go read it. As soon as it's out in America. Or get someone to smuggle you a copy from overseas. Totally worth it, I promise.

1 comment:

andromache said...

I've been AS Byatt's number 1 fan since reading The Virgin in the Garden as a disturbed teenage boy. I pressed all of Frederica Potter, Possession and The Game on my sceptical friends. But this one is a squawking, flapping turkey. Obvious symbolism, 100-page stretches of languid prose that take the story nowhere, the author telling you what to think all the time, quite arbitrary developments in character. All of Byatt's obsessions, with few of her virtues.