Three days after finishing the audiobook version of this novel, I’m still partly in the detailed and intricate world Byatt created. I didn’t want the book to end and I miss the characters.
A saga about the lives of its inter-related characters between 1895 and 1919, the novel concerns itself with the history of England and to a lesser extent Germany during that period. It deals with subjects including Fabian socialism, the Arts and Crafts movement, neo-paganism, the anarchist movement, education, women’s suffrage, writing for children, puppetry and pottery. It’s also concerned with parent / child and sibling relationships, sexuality, truth, trust, deceit, betrayal and hypocrisy.
The work is hugely ambitious; a monster of book filled to bursting point with detail. Clothing, meals, parties, modes of transport and works of art are minutely described. Historical characters share the stage with fictional ones: an aging Oscar Wilde is seen at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, Rupert Brooke attends Fabian summer camp, the characters go to an early performance of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Marie Stopes is met when she is studying in Germany. Byatt painstakingly recreates the late Victorian and the Edwardian period as she explores the lives of a small segment of the population: artists, free-thinkers and intellectuals.
I might have enjoyed the work less if I had known more about the time period in which it’s set and the subjects with which it deals. As it is, I knew virtually nothing and learned a great deal. Listening to the novel felt like taking an immersion course in the social history of the period leading up to and including World War I. However, as interesting as I found the world of the novel, the wealth of detail is also its major weakness. At times it felt like Byatt had dumped the entire contents of her filing cabinet into the book; it was as if she couldn’t bear to leave out a single detail, no matter how insignificant to the narrative. This makes the work somewhat unwieldy and overblown. On the other hand, it also makes it closer to the style of a Victorian novel, which I assume is what Byatt was aiming to achieve.
The audiobook was beautifully narrated by Nicolette McKenzie, who found the perfect voice for each of the characters. This could not have been easy to do, given the large cast of characters and the fact that a significant number of them are much the same age. I was very glad that I listened to rather than read this book. The narration really brought the characters alive.
I’ve been undecided whether to give the book 4 or 5 stars. The fact that I didn’t want it to end would generally put a book into the “amazing” category. However, I’m also aware that it’s a flawed work, which could have been perfect with just a little more discipline. So I’ll settle on 4-1/2 stars for now. That may go up to 5 if I’m still thinking about the characters a week or two from now.
Edited on 1 December 2012: Well, a week on and I am still thinking about the characters and missing the world of the novel. I've amended the rating to 5 stars.