Fiction: "The Children's Room" by A.S. Byatt
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It is always best to have a guide to an imaginary world. Every Wonderland has an Alice, every Oz a Dorothy, and Neverland a Peter Pan.
Without a central character who is as amazed as we are by the magic of the new place, the realm of discovery can become as confusing and as overwhelming as our quotidian world.
A.S. Byatt, one of the most talented and ambitious novelists working today, has published an enormous new work: it stretches to 700 pages -- and the narrative reach is equally colossal.
Lacking, however is the one character whose plight we empathize with and whose quest we reconfigure as our own.
The novel begins at the end of the Victorian era. Olive Wellwood is a children's book author who lives in Todefright, a rambling farmhouse in Kent. It overflows with people and secrets and struggles, most notably young Philip, a Dickensian urchin found in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, competently sketching the collection's artwork. Philip arrives at the homestead just in time for Olive's third annual midsummer bacchanalia:
"Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time or at weekends and on holidays, in converted cottages and old farmhouses, Arts and Crafts homes and workingmen's terraces, in the villages, woods and meadows around the Kentish Weald and the North and South Downs."
Like Todefright's perpetual guest list, complex social issues abound in this novel -- motherhood, poverty, class, myths, creativity, self-discovery and self-doubt, not to mention feminism, socialism, homosexuality, art, the nature of virtue, debates on the Aesthetic movement, sublimation, Marxism, utopianism and other topics I've most likely missed.
Byatt's prose is exquisite. Among the first women admitted to Cambridge, her intellect is apparent everywhere. Chapters are incisive explorations of characters' personal struggles.
Olive's beautiful son, Tom, is sent off to boarding school. Tormented, he challenges his prefect and then disappears for weeks. The experience of being bullied (and most likely sodomized) forever changes this boy, and he loses any ambition to succeed.
There is also Philip's sister, Elsie, who arrives from the slums of London to tell her brother that their mother is dead. With nowhere else to go she gains entry into Philip's life first as a fellow servant, and then as the primary caretaker for the household.
Then there is Humphrey, Olive's husband, who seems oblivious to any moral code, as well as Olive's nephew, Julian, who lusts after his cousin Tom.
Hedda nocturnally lurks about Todefright spying on her father, Humphrey, who sneaks into her Aunt Violet's bedroom. Hedda eavesdrops only to learn things that eventually make everyone unhappy, if not even more confused.
Olive, whose devotion and drive to create magical tales overpowers everything else in her life, manages to interject herself into everyone else's personal crisis. Her fantasies, no matter how farfetched and no matter how strange, are more easily controlled and manipulated than reality, which, more often than not, disappoints her.
Byatt is a magnificent storyteller. Her 1990 novel, "Possession," was awarded the Booker Prize and later made into a film that succeeded because the characters were so driven by passion and intellect.
It is the same here; each character is fascinating, but in the end there are just too many stories to absorb. Byatt could have easily divided this novel into several books and reached a conclusion within each volume.
The allure of wide-screen narrative, with its manifold characters, plot lines and resolutions, tempts all mature writers at one time or another, including most famously Dickens, Tolstoy and Zola.
It is a difficult undertaking and perhaps the great test of a writer's ability to control the form. I hope that Byatt attempts another great novel because even getting lost in this magnificently drawn landscape can be an adventure for the reader.
First Published November 1, 2009 12:00 am