Once I met a friend for an early dinner at the local pub. For some reason I knew I was going to get there early and that she was going to be late, but I didn’t mind, I grabbed the book I was a quarter through at the time, AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and lugged the massive tome out with me. There’s something wonderful about reading in public. All the energy, anxieties and barely veiled social undercurrents go on around you, wash over you, but you’re on your little island of the world of the book. You share a secret with the characters and author. My friend was quite late in the end but I had most enjoyable company as the shadows lengthened in the beer garden. When she finally arrived we had our meal and a couple of drinks and a great long chat. At one point we went to leave the table, a bathroom break I believe, and I worried about leaving my book behind. “No-one’s going to steal your book Rachel,” she said mockingly. And my immediate thought was, “well, why not?” What’s wrong with it, why isn’t it an item of value? Why wouldn’t anyone treasure it as completely as a smartphone or an item of jewellery? I still don’t have an answer.
The Children’s Book, by the way, is a wonderful expansive novel. It is the wall to wall plushpile of novels, the seaside mansion with ocean views, a hammock in the shade of a tree and a fresh afternoon sea breeze. It is about, as you’d assume, the children of and associated with a small group of English families at the beginning of the Edwardian era. It took me a seriously long time to read, but it was a world I lived in, it showed me things about that time, place and later the devastation of World War I that I had only vaguely imagined. Maybe that’s something to be said about the historical novel, your Tolkiens et al can create whole new worlds for your imagination, but to manufacture a world that has actually existed is something else entirely. It is research and painstaking dedication to the time period and unlimited faith on the part of the reader. It took me a while to get into, but I was so glad I did.
It still hasn’t been stolen.
The Children’s Book by AS Byatt: 3.5 stars.
Read it when: you’re not in a hurry, you want to escape, instead of watching reality television.