The kids are alright

<p>A S Byatt&rsquo;s <i>The Children&rsquo;s Book</i> (Chatto) has been widely, but not universally, well received within the literary press with a number of reviewers noting a sense of being preached to, or following a route that had been carved out for the reader.</p>
<p>And, despite Byatt being one of the shortlist authors to have won the Booker previously, William Hill currently has her book at 8/1. But Booker wins are never that simple to decide.</p>
<p><i>The Children&rsquo;s Book</i> is surely one of the most ambitious on this year&rsquo;s shortlist. Although not the largest tome, it is still a hefty door-stopping 600-plus pages of an expansive narrative that drifts through the lives of an ensemble cast.</p>
<p>The period it spans&mdash;more than 20 years from the end of Victoria&rsquo;s reign to shortly after the First World War&mdash;is an era rich in themes for an author: sexual repression and sexual awakening, women&rsquo;s liberation and other great social changes.</p>
<p>Byatt mines all these and more to create a backdrop for her main characters&mdash;dysfunctional families headed by a writer, a potter and a museum curator.</p>
<p>The museum curator is one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, offset by the brutish and slightly deranged potter Benedict Fludd, who sneers and shouts at people as he struggles to express his genius. Totally cut off from his family and any friends he may once have had, Fludd&rsquo;s only vaguely functional relationship is with a young waif and stray-turned-apprentice, Philip.</p>
<p>Meanwhile the writer, a bohemian author of children&rsquo;s stories and fairytales (of a sort familiar to those who have read Byatt's <i>Possession</i>), is a mother whose real engagement with her many children does not appear to come naturally.&nbsp;</p>
<p>In some ways, Olive&rsquo;s inability to connect with her children reflects Byatt&rsquo;s inability to grapple with her own characters. The cast is large, as is Olive's brood, and although Byatt manages to keep the reader interested in who does what, we rarely find out what they are truly thinking.</p>
<p>The interior voice, something so important to the literary groups that feature towards the end of the novel, rarely appears, and we are left to assume what is felt. Those who are depressive or suicidal act, but do not express&mdash;even to themselves&mdash;the reasons for their actions. The victims of sexual abuse have no voice for what happened, or how it affects them. A mother, whose children are brought up as those of another, is just another person in the jumble of misfit characters.</p>
<p>Conversely, however, the exterior is painstakingly detailed. The descriptions of certain events&mdash;notably the exposition in Paris&mdash;feel long and drawn out, and the name-dropping (Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke) comes across after a while as self-conscious and unnecessary.</p>
<p>I liked this book, and enjoyed the journey it took me on, following a group of children and adults with so much promise, who are all but destroyed before the Great War even begins. But it left me feeling unsatisfied: I knew what had happened, when and how&mdash;but by the end, I still hadn&rsquo;t understood why. <br />