I made a mistake last night – I started reading a new book an hour before bedtime. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but I picked up The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, which is turning out to be a Great Book. The novel has its detractors – it’s dense, wordy and thick, but that’s one of the things I like about it. As a fast reader, it’s forcing me to slow down and absorb the rich language along with the abundance of information.
Set on the cusp between Victorian and Modern England, The Children’s Book (as far as I’ve read, anyway) centers around fairy tale author Olive Wellwood and her family. At the book’s open, she and her son Tom are visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. As Tom and the curator’s son wander through the museum’s treasures, they find hints of magic and a young man named Philip living in the depths of the collection. Full of socialist and motherly love, Olive decides to bring Philip home to her bustling country estate, full of children and servants and luxuries the impoverished boy could never imagine.
As I read last night I felt the book build up – I knew I was just about to the really, really good part, where the author hooks you in and you cannot stop reading. The mysteries are starting to unfold, and it took a lot of effort to put the novel down. I’ve already succumbed to two other books so far this month. One was Juliet, Naked, the new novel from Nick Hornby. While not a Great Book, it is charismatic and light and fun (even while being serious) and as with all of Hornby’s books, you feel as if you’re hearing from a friend. That was Friday night. Saturday night I got sucked into The Kids are All Right, a four-part memoir reflecting on life after a family loses their father and their mother in a short timeframe. I could not pry myself away, desperate to find out how four upper-middle-class kids (their father owned an oil company, their mother was on The Edge of Night and Loving!) would deal with the loss of not just their parents, but of their entire lives.
But back to the world of A.S. Byatt. The Children’s Book was short-listed for a Booker Prize this year, and Byatt has won before, for Possession (which some may remember as a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart). I read Possession and Byatt’s novellas Angels and Insects years ago and hadn’t felt the need to return to her as an author. That was until earlier this year, when I read an interview with her sister Margaret Drabble, an acclaimed author in England whom I’d never heard of. She also has a new book out, and in her interview she discussed her sister’s resentment of her, because growing up Byatt was the author and Drabble was supposed to be “the pretty one.” Then Drabble went and wrote her first book, which was very well received. It took nearly 30 years for Byatt to get out of her younger sister’s shadow. That’s certainly a frustration I can identify with, so from one beleaguered older sister to another, I decided to give Byatt another shot. And I’m so glad I did.