I don't often review books on here, as I save that for my book group, but A. S. Byatt wrote one of the better novels I've ever read, Possession, so I was looking forward to this.
After I read Possession I felt depressed that I would never write as well. But this book has restored my hope. If this is the kind of book that top novelists can get away with, then there's scope for people like me.
Firstly, this book would be better without the frustrating tendency to lecture. I am sure that A. S. Byatt read widely in her research for the book. The problem is she wants to tell me, the reader, how much she knows.
There is an improbable number of chance meetings with famous people from the time - like Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, and Marie Stopes. Even given the circles the protagonists move in, it gets a bit silly (especially the encounter with Stopes). She gets obsessed with the "young and beautiful" Rupert Brooke towards the end of the book, dropping him into the prose in a gossipy kind of way.
At times the story drifts into quasi-historical narratives about suffragettes or letters written by the Prime Minister's wife. Interesting, yes, but they get in the way of the story.
As a result some of the characters, especially the younger children, hardly get a look in to the story until the end, when they are suddenly introduced to the reader before being shipped off into the carnage of the Great War.
There are a couple of plot 'twists', but they are telegraphed well in advance with hints dropped like housebricks. I worked out there were parentage issues a long time before the characters did. I knew there was something dark locked away in the Potter's cupboard and guessed what it might be. And I knew who the soldier in the clay was bound to be.
I'm not saying that to big myself up. My point is, if I get it, then it's not much of a twist.
But there is an over-arching sadness to the book. A generation of free-thinkers and Fabians, socialists, artists and poets fail to change the world. Their children are raised with dreams of utopia and end up ground through the gore-mills of Flanders and the Somme. The tragic ends of life and the shattered families who are left behind are described so matter-of-factly they expend the reader's emotional energy far more than if written as melodrama.
So, on that score, it's a good book. Parts of the plot will probably live with me for a long time (much like Possession). Many vignettes ring true to life and are powerful because of it.
And yet I was left feeling that this had the potential to be so much better if the author could have restrained herself from showing off her learning.