Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A woman's book?

To celebrate International Women's Day - rather late than never - I want to praise a book by a woman whose writing I've been admiring for many years.

The British novelist and Booker Prize winner AS Byatt, like most serious female writers, would probably not appreciate the label 'women's writing'. They regard themselves as writers, who happen to be women, writing for whoever wants to read them. The problem with 'women's writing', ten years into the 21st century, is still that invisible but always present prefix 'just'. Just women's writing. Implying something not quite as good as the norm, produced by the other half of the human race, which is simply called 'writing'.

At a recent writer's festival in South Africa I had to take part, once again, in the inevitable panel discussion on 'women's writing'. A male member of the audience made the provocative - but probably true - statement that a sensitive reader could correctly guess the gender of the authors of ninety percent of fictional works even if their names were not printed on the cover. This wasn't a value judgement, he stressed, just a recognition of difference. Most - but not all - female fiction authors write differently from most - but not all - male fiction authors.

And one of the notable differences, according to various audience members, was that women tended to give more detailed descriptions of the outward appearances of people and places. If this is true - and do let me know if you disagree! - AS Byatt's writing is undoubtedly more female than male. One of the joys of this 'relentlessly talky' author, as she was once called in The New York Times Book Review, is her solid command of detail even when she deals with the most slippery intellectual ideas.

The novel Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, first drew my attention to this fiercely intelligent, wildly imaginative author. During the next twenty years I read quite a few of her other books and was particularly enchanted by Babel Tower and The Matisse Stories, both show-pieces of Byatt's vast knowledge of the history of art and literature.

Her latest novel, The Children's Book (shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize), provides all the delights and, I have to reluctantly admit, some of the irritations of her lush, expansive style. Once again it is a big, fat, serious book about art and literature and secrets and relationships. Once again it starts off in Victorian England, sweeping the reader along to the thrills of the Paris Exhibition in 1889 and the political turmoil in Germany at the turn of the century, through the utopian ideals of the Edwardian era, right up to the trenches and the horror of the First World War. Once again it is an 'old-fashioned' novel with a strong story line (and I mean this as a compliment) by 'an author who behaves as if James Joyce never existed - and gets away with it', as another reviewer described her.

This time the protagonist is Olive Wellwood, a successful Victorian writer of children's stories who raises a large brood of children, not all her own as it turns out, in a rambling house in the countryside. For each of her children she writes an ongoing fantasy story, a beautiful private book bound in a particular colour and kept on a special shelf. Numerous other narrative threads are woven into this intricate tapestry: a working-class boy from the potteries joins the family; a mysterious German puppeteer arrives with his puppets; the children, their cousins and their friends grow up in an enchanting storybook world, totally unprepared for the war and the darkness ahead.

I can't remember when last I read a book which thrilled and irritated me in such equal measures. It is not enough for AS Byatt to tell us about the fairy tale that Olive writes for one of her children; no, she has to show us the whole story, written in Olive's Victorian style. Remember the fake Victorian poetry in Possession? That really impressed me. But this time it isn't just the well-known writer's trick of showing rather than telling. It's more like showing off. The same goes for the puppeteer's work; we get a blow-by-blow account of each puppet show, often based on ancient fairy tales. Even for a reader like me, who adores fairy tales, it becomes too much of a good thing - which is never a good thing.

But then, the value of many really good novels, like handwoven carpets, often lies in their very imperfection. In their lack of restraint, their flashes of brilliance, forming a whole which is inexplicably greater than the sum of its uneven parts. And that has nothing to do with gender. The Children's Book is a wonderful story you won't easily forget, whether you're male or female, written by an author who happens to be a woman.

And if this makes it a woman's book, well, then so be it.

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