I don’t even know where to begin to describe this book. It’s a meandering and in many ways epic story of a number of interconnected English and German families from about 1890 through the first World War. There are a large number of characters and Byatt dips in and out of their lives in a seemingly random way. The story of the characters is interspersed with original fairy tales told in their entirety and descriptions of what appear to be the newspaper headlines of the day especially where they concern the activities of various liberal societies and political movements. As can be assumed by the ground covered, this is a pretty big book – I listened to the audio book which was 24 discs long and took me a month and ½ to get through listening in the car.
First and foremost, A.S. Byatt is a beautiful and spell-binding writer and the tone and atmosphere of the book is one that I think only she could create. At times dreamlike and ethereal, sometimes charming, sometimes heartbreaking, and other times at a distant emotional remove it drew me along slowly but surely. I didn’t exactly yearn for the next installment of the story but I was definitely sucked into the book’s world as I listened.
While I would say I am definite fan of the book I gave it only 4 stars because it does at times feel a little indulgent. It’s not fair to say it doesn’t have a plot, it has dozens of plots, but it did feel like maybe it was too much. That it could have done with a little more focus and editing. There were many tangents in the book where the author backed away from the characters and relayed the history of the era. I did not enjoy these interludes and in that way I think I probably enjoyed the audio more than I would have reading the book as I could kind of drift off and not pay as close attention during those parts.
So what’s the major theme of the book? Reality bites? The pointlessness of life? I’m not entirely sure. And while the two candidates above make it sound pretty grim, and it is at times, it is not overall a downer of a book, at least it wasn’t for me. In addition to the overall point of the book (does there need to be one?) there are also a lot of interesting things in the book that would lend themselves to discussion. Who’s your favorite character and why – did the author lead you to prefer that character over others? Why all the talk of sex? For me, by the end of the book, the young of the two generations portrayed in the book had proven themselves to be better people then their elders – is that intentional and if so why?
In the end, despite occasional frustration at the author’s meandering, I have to say I liked it very much and found it be a moving, enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.