My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I had never heard of this novel until I came across a comment on goodreads that claimed A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book was basically a rip-off of The Years. Having now read (and loved) both novels, I can say that I don’t understand the criticism of Byatt’s novel. There is a similarity, I suppose, in the concept of the novel, but the approach, content, and style are all completely different. That said, I’m thankful for the comment I disagreed with, because it led me to this lovely book.
Apparently, though, I’m not supposed to love it. It seems that one reason I had never heard of the novel is that it’s not considered one of her best. Maybe, though, I love it so much because I don’t consider myself to be a big reader of Woolf. I like To The Lighthouse very much, and A Room of One’s Own, of course, but while I admire the concept of Orlando, the novel left me cold. I am now embarrassed to admit that I tried to read Mrs. Dalloway a few years ago and couldn’t get very far (after liking The Years, though, I now want to try Mrs. Dalloway again). Until The Years, my favorite of Woolf’s writings I had read was actually Moments of Being. The Years reminds me of that fragmented memoir. It feels deeply intimate and captures individual consciousness in a way that just feels more real, more personal, than some of her other work.
Is it perfect? Of course not. I would have been happy to spend more time with each character, for instance. But I felt drawn into the world of this novel so completely that it was with me when I wasn’t reading it. Perhaps this is because of my own age, but I was captivated by the way the characters kept returning in their minds to key past moments, but slowly forgetting certain parts. And how certain childhood traumas remain mysterious — for instance, what happened to Rose?
In fact, the novel would have gotten 5 stars for me, except that I felt the final chapter focused too much on the younger characters, when I wanted more of the older generation. But in my less-than-enthusiastic response to the ending, it appears I am still out of step with prevailing opinion, since many of the goodreads reviewers here who liked the novel point to the ending as particularly brilliant. Maybe I just need to hone my Woolf reading skills more.