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The Children’s Book

May 1, 2012

For my first trip in our new car, which we’ve been calling the Heart of Gold because it’s gold and powered by improbability, I checked out the audiobook of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.  I listened to it all the way to southern Missouri and back, and then off and on, in a desultory way, until this week when I finally got to the end.

It was pleasant to listen to because it reminded me of the kinds of books I used to read when I could only check out ten books a week at the public library, so I’d choose the biggest, thickest books they had.  I remember reading The Forsythe Saga during that period; there were lots of multi-generational family sagas.  The Children’s Book is like that.  Kim, at Sophisticated Dorkiness, recently called this “retro reading” and it is pleasant to remember those days, when it seemed like I had plenty of time for long, meandering stories.

On the other hand, it wasn’t necessarily the best book for a long, solo drive, because it moved so slowly that it didn’t always keep my attention.  It’s not good for an absent-minded person to get too deep into her thoughts while going 65 miles an hour or so on the interstate.

But eventually I’d get interested again, usually when Olive Wellwood, the matriarch, was telling one of her stories, or when the father of one of her children was describing his puppet shows.  Olive and her husband have an interesting kind of open marriage which includes his sexual relationship with Olive’s sister, who is primarily responsible for raising the children of their household.  During one conversation between Olive and Violet, the sister, Olive is upset because she has just seen her husband kissing another woman and Violet says “that was stupid of you. Better not see.”

I kept waiting for the title to make sense, and eventually it did. The Children’s Book is a book Olive makes for each of her children, each story different. The main one is her oldest son Tom’s, and it is called Tom Underground.  He is absorbed in it and even as a young adult still believes in some of its transformative power, until his mother betrays him by using it for a stage performance without asking and letting a girl play the title role, as in a performance of Peter Pan to which he had previously objected.

The topic of mothers using the tales they’ve spun about their little boys in ways that the young man objects to is timely in my household. Walker doesn’t like me to show some of the photos I take of him or tell stories about him, now that he’s sixteen. His life is his own, and a mother must ask permission for what she shares of it; her view of his life is no longer powerful enough to dictate what becomes of even an hour of it. Olive doesn’t see this, absorbed in her own life as deeply as she is.  At one point during the preparations for the play, the narrator says that “Olive had never reached the end of the tale in Tom’s book, which was constructed to be endless.”  She and the puppeteer decide that the ending of the play must involve magic, which Olive knows is tacked-on and false. Finally Tom himself contrives to give his tale a more genuine ending.

In the end, the pastoral rhythm of all their lives is interrupted by the advent of World War I. Most of the boys do not return, but the end of the novel finds one of the mothers giving everything she can–a place to rest and a bowl of soup–to the young men who have returned from the trenches.  The tales of their childhood will never cast the same spell–even if some of them still clap for Tinkerbell when they see Peter Pan with their own children, it will be in a self-conscious way.

And that is the meaning of the title, too.  This is the story of the age before the first world war, the great age of the children’s book. My children were raised on these stories, like generations before them.  They got those exciting views of what children might be capable of when the grownups are absent.  But now, like Tom, they don’t even need shoes and an overcoat to weigh them down with adult dignity. Their shadows are quite firmly attached.

In the end, all children grow up–this is also the meaning of the title. The exceptions are not lovely, but the stuff of a mother’s nightmare:  “suddenly the room was full of every Tom 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 a light, his brows pulled into a frown, the adolescent with his skin broken out, the young man walking, always walking or about to walk. They were all equally present because they were all gone.”

All in all, an auspicious tale to christen the first trip in the new car, the car we bought to facilitate trips back and forth to colleges with our long-legged children and all the things they will need to survive on their own.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 9:43 am

    The “Anne of Green Gables” series was worth it because of the role played by WW I in the last book. They were quick reads, and I could predict the structure of each, but WW I – well, cast in that shadow, the books rang that much more truly in my heart.

    We just don’t talk about WW I in the United States, and i think that makes its impact the harder to convey.

    • May 2, 2012 7:58 am

      I discovered the Lord of the Rings books when I was eleven, so I grew up with an idea of the shadow cast by WWI over the fields of England.

  2. May 1, 2012 9:51 am

    I love how you emphasised the motherhood angle of the story, as this is something I wasn’t as sensitive to. Still, this is one of my favourite books. I need to read it again.

    • May 2, 2012 8:00 am

      The effect of a mother as a figure immersed in stories is one I need to reflect on occasionally.

  3. May 1, 2012 9:58 am

    Stellar word weaving as usual, Doctor P.

  4. May 1, 2012 9:59 am

    I admit, this book scares me a little. Not because of it’s thickness, but because I’ve never been able to read anything by Byatt except Possession. Possession just struck me on such a personal level that I am afraid I’ll ruin the impressions by reading something else by her. That’s stupid, I know, but a fear nonetheless.

    • May 2, 2012 8:03 am

      I read Possession years ago, when I was in graduate school, I think, and remember being caught up in it. Maybe you should wait until some of your impressions fade a little. When your youngest boy turns sixteen might be the right time to read this one.

  5. freshhell permalink
    May 1, 2012 10:02 am

    I remember reading this though it’s been awhile. But I don’t remember what I liked about it. Kind of like a dream that you lose the thread of throughout the next day until there’s almost nothing left but a vague feeling of….something.

    • May 2, 2012 8:06 am

      There are so many things…I’ll bet you liked the parts about what it takes to be an artist. I thought the character of the novelist Herbert Methley was priceless–he was such a jerk, and so true to life.

  6. May 1, 2012 1:05 pm

    I got about half way through this book and then put it aside — I didn’t mean to, but it was slow and something else came up. Thanks for reminding me — I do want to finish it.

    • May 2, 2012 8:08 am

      It is slow, but the effect is cumulative, so it’s worth the trip.

  7. May 1, 2012 7:10 pm

    I don’t think I could have made it through this book on audio! Even driving. It’s well-written but mercy, there’s just so MUCH of it. My favorite bits were the parts about the Tom Underground stories. I didn’t love what Byatt did with Tom in the end (I felt like Tom needed to put on his big boy panties and deal with it), but I did love everything with his mother’s writing.

    • May 2, 2012 8:11 am

      Ordinarily I don’t think I’d be able to understand or sympathize with why Tom does what he ends up doing, but it seemed the only course to me, as it did to him. Part of that was that I read it as a response to the way he was ignored as a child. That kind of ignoring can have beneficial effects, and that was the story the parents of this era told themselves–the kids were in the woods playing and living a rich, imaginative life. But when he went off to school and his parents didn’t take his concerns seriously, that was literally the end of the world. He just hung on for a while afterwards.

  8. May 1, 2012 9:02 pm

    I agree with Jenny. I wouldn’t have been able to take this on audio, although it probably would be fun to hear some of the stories read aloud. I loved some of the stories. And I was so impressed by the many layers of meaning in them. I hadn’t thought about the multiple meanings of the title, but yes, I can see that, too!

    • May 2, 2012 8:21 am

      It was a period of my life when everything else was going fast, so it was nice to let this long story take its time. When I finally wanted to get to the end, as I often do with an audiobook, I drove to the library and checked out the book, to find that I had only five pages left.

  9. aartichapati permalink
    May 1, 2012 11:26 pm

    I totally get distracted while listening to audiobooks! I am glad I am not the only one. I agree that a long, slowly meandering book would be very difficult to do over audio- but glad you managed to get through it well enough to come through with a very eloquent post!

    • May 2, 2012 8:23 am

      Listening to it, in fact, gave me time to mull over some of the ideas and conjecture about what would happen next, and why.

  10. May 2, 2012 2:04 pm

    This book has me thinking about something Robb Foreman Dew said on Fresh Air years ago. (Yes, I know this to be true because I know where I was sitting when I heard the interview – odd what we remember!) Anyway, Dew said that she’s had to wait to write “Fortunate Lives” until her children passed a certain age, that she needed to be at that point as a mother to write the book. I wonder if that is also true of reading books such as this one.

    • May 3, 2012 7:45 am

      To a certain extent, I think it is. You can always imagine yourself in the situation of one of the characters–remembering your own young adulthood and struggles to separate yourself from your parents–but sometimes you do find yourself in such a similar situation that a book speaks to you more. On the other hand, Nymeth loves this book, and the mother bits didn’t speak to her the way they did to me.

  11. May 2, 2012 7:37 pm

    I don’t do well with slow, rambling books on audio, so I might do better with this book in print.

    By the way, many people do say filling station here in the south. We also use Coke for every soft drink made.

    • May 3, 2012 7:50 am

      Oh yeah. The kids and I had a running joke about the silliness of looking shocked and exclaiming “no!” whenever a waiter asked “is Pepsi okay?” Because if it’s brown and bubbly, it’s coke.

  12. May 2, 2012 8:59 pm

    A golden car powered by improbability — love it!!

    I’ve been meaning to try this author … either this one or Possession. Perhaps I’ll read it as long rambling books on audio don’t always work for me. I might be better off with a print version.

    • May 3, 2012 7:51 am

      I’d read Possession first. Your son is a little young yet for you to react to the parts about motherhood as I did.

  13. May 2, 2012 9:39 pm

    I really like the idea of revisiting books I’ve read on audio. I think a lot of what I used to read, fantasy and mystery, would be good on audio because the plot moves along so quickly.

    • May 3, 2012 7:54 am

      A lot of people seem to like audio to move fast. I’m the opposite. If I’m going to take the time to listen to something out loud, it’s got to be worth all that time. I’m a very fast reader, so an audiobook is a very different experience; it’s much slower and so I like it to be worth mulling over.

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