Both brilliant and deeply flawed, this book is an extraordinary achievement that doesn’t always work, but is nevertheless a riveting, educational and inspirational read. It was so beautiful and utterly engrossing, that I loved it despite its faults, and found it filling my thoughts for a week or two after I finished it.
It describes the creative process (principally writing, puppetry and pottery) in gloriously vivid detail, as it relates to some Edwardian families, but at other times reads more like a history text book.
The book is divided into four sections (Beginnings, The Golden Age, The Silver Age and The Age of Lead), but I find it more helpful to consider its main themes:
• Describing events in the interwoven and varied lives of a huge cast of ~30 main characters, over more than 20 years. Their individual importance waxes and wanes as the story progresses, but all are significant, though a few are not as well developed as others. Because they are so intertwined, it all feels rather claustrophobic and incestuous as the book progresses.
• There is detailed historical context of arts and politics at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although those such as Rupert Brooke and the V&A Museum are well-known and the Wellwoods are clearly Byatt’s invention, a reader is not always sure what is fact and what is fiction, so you have to learn to let go, which is odd in the sections that focus on Fabians, artists of various kinds, theosophists, suffragettes, museums etc in general.
• It is infused with a tangible love of the decorative arts, via the characters who create objects and the interests of the museum curator: the initial inspiration, evolution of that idea and the process of using it to create something. The detail is, at times, breathtaking – you can almost feel the wet clay slip beneath your fingers, like Philip, who “thought with his fingers and his eyes together”. The visceral power of art, even on other artists, is observed: on seeing a Rodin, “Philip’s first instinct was to turn and run. This was too much. It was so strong that it would destroy him.” Yet when several of them looked at the same sculpture, “none of them saw the same thing as the others”. For a writer, “thoughts... had to stay in the head taking on an independent life, becoming solid objects, to be negotiated”.
• Not everything is as it first seems; even libertines strive to keep up appearances to some extent. There are secrets that emerge, some more shocking than others and a couple that stretch credulity a little. Discovery sometimes has unexpectedly subtle results, “she had been changed and she did not know how”, minding the lie more than the fact itself because “those who are lied to feel diminished”, whilst also realising that knowing it gave her power. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth and if so, does that vindicate the wrong that is hidden by a lie? “Grey, invisible cats had crept from their bags and were dancing and spitting on stair corners.”
• Many characters are torn between two worlds: academia or marriage; gay or straight; wealth versus anarchy; being old or young; class barriers; fact and fantasy (“an unreal world... which seemed more real than the real world”); multiple partners etc. The women at Newnham College, Cambridge “felt themselves to be both demure and dangerous, determined and impeded. They found their situation both frustrating and... wildly comic”.
• The power of story-telling is the most fundamental theme and yet Byatt’s own storytelling is the main weakness in this book. Olive Wellwood is a published children’s author who writes an endless story book for each of her children, but you increasingly wonder whether the stories reflect or mould the children’s characters. Certainly they permeate the children’s lives, “The magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret” and parts of these stories are scattered around the book. For some characters, stories even hold the power of life and death.
These multiple aspects cause problems: the narrative style varies widely and at times there is too much catching up to do (whether that be the lives of Byatt’s characters or historical background). When she is rattling off different people’s thoughts in quick succession, especially when using reported speech, you have to read carefully to be sure of who is thinking what and at other times it is just a disjointed stream of facts. Other parts are journalistic and then there are the fairy stories. There is even some wry humour, such as the character who “realised he was able to be an anarchist because he was rich” and later “decided he could help the poor better by studying them than by getting to know them”.
Nevertheless, there is much that is brilliant in this book. As well as insights into creativity, Byatt is especially good at portraying the inner thoughts and outward awkwardness of children of all ages. “The young desired to be free of the adults and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them.”
The first two sections of Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child" has many echoes of this (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/380807175).