The Children’s Book
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.