The shining light has been The Children's Book. It's huge, but I've been happily reading away, and I think I'm down to the last quarter of the book. I think I started it on Sunday? Even if it were Friday, that's ~600 pages in a week, which feels pretty darn good, and is an indicator of how good it is.
Remember Clara and Mr Tiffany which I disliked so much? The Children's Book, to my fascination (if I can use that word that way), has a lot of the same elements. Arty people with unconventional values in the 1890s-1910s. A big international exposition. Real-life famous people like Emma Goldman making cameos. But it is orders of magnitude better. This is something I noted in Possession: Byatt is so comfortable with the past, she handles it and lays it out for the reader in a gently authoritative way. She's the sort of author who doesn't seem to have done a ton of research so much as just described what was around her, which somehow happens to be a different place and time.
Even Homer nods, though, and this happens:
"We have sentimental things, too, in abundance. Schwabing has invented a word for them, a word I like. Kitsch."But it's a lot more tolerable when it happens for the first time on page 555, and when it's as subtle as this to boot.
If I can theorize a little, I think part of the problem is that Clara tried to make Clara into an outsider through whom we, the readers, could learn about a particular place and time; that's a common enough trope (I recognize it particularly from sci-fi), but it backfires since in fact Clara the real-life woman was not an outsider. It muddied up her character, and obscured a lot of what made her interesting, namely, her expertise and experience. Byatt doesn't bother with this, and so the various characters' connections with the major currents of the day feel much more natural.
Of course there's more that could be said about why Byatt's novel is more successful, but I'm not interested in taking this particular comparison any further; I don't mean to beat up on a book I didn't like, and anyway I'll write up a proper review for The Children's Book in time. But I find these different approaches to history-through-fiction instructive.
Happy Halloween, if that's your thing, this weekend!