What an ambitious book this is! And a puzzling one as well. There’s sometimes something quite dull about Byatt’s writing — I think it has to do with the distance she maintains from her characters. And yet it’s also completely absorbing. I found myself thinking a great deal about it and wanting to get back to it when I wasn’t reading it.
The premise is wonderful: Byatt opens with three boys in their teens at the South Kensington Museum, in 1895. Two of the boys are educated, upper-middle class children, and the third is a runaway from the Potteries in central England, camping out in the museum and drawing what he sees. The book is going to be the tale of these children and their families. Byatt points out that in the large families of the era, “relations shifted subtly as new people were born — or indeed, died — and in which a child also had a group identity as ‘one of the older ones’ or ‘one of the younger ones.'” The central clan here is the Wellwood family, the seven surviving children of Humphry and Olive Wellwood, earnest, liberal, and more complicated than they appear.
The novel, 675 pages in hardcover, spans twenty-four years. Do the math: it takes us to 1919. This may be the weakness of the structure. The book is paced with considerable leisure at first (echoing a child’s perception of time?) but speeds up toward the end, when World War I breaks out and the characters who were children in England and Germany at the turn of the century necessarily get caught up in World War I. Most of the men die in the usual places (Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele) and the women serve as VADs or doctors. This material felt unfortunately familiar after the magic of the earlier sections — maybe it was supposed to? Maybe adulthood is just like that? Lord, I hope not.
And perhaps the end suffers mostly in contrast with the earlier sections. I’m not kidding about “magic.” It’s everywhere — in Olive’s tales, in Byatt’s appreciation of the English countryside. Some of the characters are German theater people and puppeteers, providing opportunities for us to experience stage magic. Only a writer as good as Byatt could hope to approximate that art form in words. Yet she is equally insistent about historical context and “real life,” with substantial sections of narrative that set the background for the characters’ actions but read like a textbook. I have to assume this is intentional; possibly we readers are to feel the shift between fiction and fact, in the way her characters toggle between real life and fantasy? There’s certainly a lot of structural doubling going on — Olive Wellwood grew up in a mining town in the north, many of her tales feature tunnels and underground life, and what were the trenches but another version of muddy claustrophobic horror? The runaway boy in the first scene turns out to be a genius potter, and nearly meets his death buried in the clay of Flanders.
Maybe this is what’s going on: Olive writes a tale for each of her children: each has his or her own book, specially written and bound to suit his or her character. Each has his story. Who writes the story? Who chooses it? Who tells it? How much of it gets told, and to whom? Maybe Byatt’s book is the meta-version, the fiction of all of the children.