Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book of the year- the winner


"Fludd did import, by train, a pale, creamy clay from Dorset, which he used to make a pouring slip, or engobe and mixed with the red clay to lighten it. Phillip learned to pound and sieve this clay, and mix it in water. He learned to revolve the clays in the bladed pug mill which stood where the butter churn had been.......Like most potters Fludd was secretive about the recipes for both these things. He had leather-backed ledgers, locked in a drawer, written in a code based on Anglo-Saxon runes and Greek lettering which Phillip could not read. He did not use conventional weights, but had his own spheres of dried clay, numbered from one to eight...." pp128,
"The Children's Book", A.S. Byatt, Chatto and Windus, 2009

The Children's Book by English writer A.S. Byatt was my favourite book of 2009. Set in England a the end of the Victorian era "The Children's Book" follows the story of the Wellwood family, a bohemian group of artists, writers and dreamers as they formulate ideas on living, loving and society through the changing fabric of British life at the turn of the 19th century. Olive Wellwood is the beautiful, talented matriarch of the family, in love an errant husband, trying to reconcile the emotions of an "open" relationship and the financial hardships of living a bohemian lifestyle. Olive writes fairytales. These stories capture the tension between creativity and family life as Olive is forced by continuous child-bearing and the pressure to bring money into the sprawling Wellwood establishment to write more and more stories. The wild joy of creation is suppressed under a thick blanket of weariness and worry .

Olive's children and younger relatives follow their own journeys through rejection of Bohemia, creative flowering and fervent belief in Socialism. An orphan boy adopted by the Wellwoods takes up an apprenticeship with genius mad potter Bernard Fludd. This character, based in some ways on Palissy runs his household with a rod of iron, terrorising his fey children and wife with his insane rages and depressions. Through all these stories run the twin threads of descriptions of work and descriptions of objects. Byatt's evocation of the era and use of tapestries, houses, pots, dresses, and jewellery to illustrate the emotional and political growth of her characters is wonderful. As you can see in the above description of Fludd's studio the research is meticulous. It is such a pleasure to read detailed accounts of working life complete with details of tools and materials.

This novel connects creativity to socio/political movements and to work and this insistence on the reality of the innovation and inspiration makes "The Children's Book " powerful document of artistic life. I found it very inspiring to realize that my ideas about the power of objects and the need for art to be connected and active in the wider world of politics are part of a long tradition of artists being politically active and changing the ideas of a nation. Amongst all the other beautiful, inspiring, intriguing ideas in this book the integral pairing of creativity and politics is the thing that galvanised me.
Fizzy D was inspired by the cover to do this drawing.

5 comments:

Claire said...

Thanks SO much for your endorsement of this book. I've got a copy sitting in my bookshelf but I've been reluctant to takle it - not sure if I could cope with AS Byatt with my current sleep deprived baby brain... but now I think I'll take it on our holiday in January and see how it goes.

sophie munns said...

Hi Shannon,
I really enjoyed this post and now want to read the book - so thank you for a great review that gives the bigger picture of i!
Have a wonderful 2010... and enjoy this festive week!
S

barb jensen said...

What a persuasive review! I can't wait to get my hands on this book. Thanks!

Shannon Garson said...

I'm so glad to have inspired you all to read this great book- I consider it very special to get the sleep deprived of early motherhood excited about such a BIG book!

Claire said...

I know, it is SO big and rather heavy. I'm definitely packing it though :-)