In a way I almost feel I should be on bended knee to even gaze upon this
book, let alone try and write my thoughts about it and I'm sorry to go on but I still can't quite believe that my
recent A.S.Byatt reading experience has been quite so productive and in
so many different ways.
I'll try and focus on what has impressed me the most, but be assured everything has impressed me more than I ever thought possible. Four weeks of reading through trying times and The Children's Book has filtered into my sub-conscious via just about every available reading pore, both with characters, plot and imagery and with the focus on a fascinating period of history from the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria through the Arts & Craft's Movement and finally to the Great War.
There are portents and foreboding aplenty pointing to that apocalyptic climax to come and when it happened it all left me quite dumbstruck.
The cast feels sprawling but connected, meticulously woven and often complex. I don't try and keep these in my head any more, penciled genograms noting the key relationships helped me keep track and are invaluable with stop-start reading. This was the age of the Fabian Society, the quest for social justice and freedom of expression prevails amongst the Cain, Fludd and Wellwood families, it is their lives that are followed and set partly in that area of Sussex around Rye, Winchelsea and Romney that always feels slightly mysterious to me. Blame Monica Edwards and a childhood addiction to the Romney Marsh series and the adventures of Tamzin, Merryon and co.
There's the irresistible backdrop of the V&A museum too and Curator Prosper Cain, and it is here that young runaway Philip Warren is discovered in hiding and into the midst of these families that he finds himself adopted and then apprenticed to master potter Benedict Fludd.
Ultimately the adults, the new age idealists of the time (does every era have its 'new age'?) follow their own agendas often to the detriment of their children, and none more so than Wellwood family matriarch and wage-earner, Olive.
Olive is a writer of children's stories not only for publication but also privately for her own children, each has a book of their own to which Olive adds instalments.
This was the era when
'children were people, with identities and desires and intelligences...they were neither dolls, nor toys, nor miniature adults...children needed freedom, needed not only to learn, and be good, but to play and be wild.'
Children 'flicker and flit' whilst Olive seems more at one with her fictional children than her real ones; almost writing out the truth of her childrens' less than idyllic lives as fairy tales, and once I knew that there was a powerful nod to Peter Pan, lost shadows and lost boys I couldn't help but allow myself to be spun deep into the web,
'She thought about the relation between readers and writers. A writer made an incantation, calling the reader into the magic circle world of the book. With subtle words, a writer enticed a reader to feel his or her skin prickle, his or her lips open, his or her blood race...'
Can a book be tactile?
I think so because I've bought all my own joy in colour and textiles to these pages and as you know A.S.Byatt has fed my addiction, a bit of mercurial, quicksilvery iridescence never goes amiss. Nor does some midnight indigo blue with dazzling stars, peacock and turquoise, blue-grey, a craft gallery called The Silver Nutmeg, bedrooms decorated in apple green and mustard yellow, Lalique, Lutyens, Burne-Jones and Klimt, puppetry, the Paris exhibition of 1900, I could go on and on.
I touched the pottery.
I surreptitiously stroked the textiles, but alongside this I knew the people too and I loved the way history was melded into The Children's Book as the characters met the names of the day, Oscar Wilde, Rodin, Rupert Brooke et al.
This is the brave and strange new world of Art Nouveau, the backward-looking age with its 'deep dream of a lost past' the age that prefigured the dawn of electricity and I have come away with a long list of things I want to know more about.
Gien Majolica, The Mermaid at Rye, Gustav Klimt, Lancelot by Burne-Jones, Lalique lights, the paintings of Samuel Palmer, the writing of Hoffmansthal, the list was endless.
So many parallels to appreciate, so many I feel sure I've missed but one that resonated above all, that of the potter's wheel.
Something as fundamental as turning raw earth into form with chemistry, so says Benedict Fludd, pots don't have to be weighed down with meaning (when you discover what Benedict keeps in his secret cupboard you might re-evaluate this statement.)
The moulding and working of the clay and that image of crumpled failure when the clay collapses somehow seemed to mirror the skill of the writer.
'I'm not an artist. I earn my living by storytelling.' Olive tells Prosper Cain,
'That is nonsense dear lady and you know it.' he replies and we do too.
That ability to throw the words, spin them into some semblance of order, mould and make sense of them and what an equally fragile and fickle medium writing can be.
See it done and marvel, try your own hand and see just how impossible it can be to get it right; centred and whole.
Like the potter, who must often work blind, the slip and milky glaze concealing the decoration, the firing in the kiln, that knife-edge process; will the pots emerge clear and bright or, where the tiniest imperfection can destroy everything, as broken shards.
Like the potter who can't quite know how successful they have been until the door of the kiln opens so too the writer who perhaps can't truly know how successful their book is until the cover is opened by the reader.
'Words have their own life' says King Huron in one of Olive's stories.
I'll admit I was completely embroiled in the sights and sounds and the lives of these children and at the moments of true compassion which ambush suddenly.
For Olive at the loss of one of the children (who I won't name)
'And suddenly the room was full of every ***** that had ever been, the blond baby, the infant taking his first hesitant steps, the little boy clutching her skirt, the besotted reader in too low light...they were all equally present because they were all gone.'
We know A.S.Byatt knows what she is talking about.
I also doubt that my new best friend needs any help from me, but this book, this writing if you haven't gathered as much by now, was out there in an orbit of its own for me.
There is a moment towards the end of the book when Philip picks up a pot of his own making at an exhibition of his work. A steward quickly moves in and asks him not to and I thought of the writer with their book.
Release a book like The Children's Book into the wild and let it go, expect it to assume a powerful and lasting life of its own, a book that becomes our property and I think every reader who touches this one will leave their own fingerprint of interpretation and understanding on it.
I hope I haven't mauled it to death before your eyes, but for me, as I think you might know for sure by now, it really has been something very special indeed.