The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

If Shakespeare had written this, we’d call it one of his ‘difficult’ plays. If Donna Tartt had written it we’d be dead from the shock. As exquisitely tailored as The Goldfinch is, this book is not. It’s a meandering, repetitive quagmire.

Christina Stead, who was capable of great neatness in prose, took it upon herself in this book to write as people actually live and actually speak. The result makes one realise how important the writer is to the process of making ourselves bearable in print. Writers may need editors, but they are nonetheless the front line of editing themselves. Can a writer get away with telling it – really telling it – how it is: every mundane statement, tedious repetition, tawdry detail. I’d say, based on this book, a qualified ‘yes’.

People are divided on this, some saying it is not only her great masterpiece but a great masterpiece, others trying to escape from it. For me it is important that it has content – something to say about the world – which The Goldfinch does not. Donna Tartt is wonderful at characterisation but whilst this may be perfect in The Goldfinch, her characters themselves are not interesting, maybe because they all seem to be moral vacuums. Stead’s characters are far more interesting and complex than Tartt’s. I can’t understand why Louie isn’t a star in the category of lead child characters in literature. Let me put that in big letters: A STAR. She survives her ghastly father, refuses to have her spirit and independence crushed by his grotesque tyranny. Whatever the title of the book may imply, I consider this is a book first and foremost about this stoic, inspiring girl.

I read The Man Who Loved Children immediately after The Goldfinch, which is why I was absolutely stunned by the differences between them. The Goldfinch is technically a tour de force, but utterly trivial – how much blood did Tartt sweat over characters who are intrinsically unloveable? The Man Who Loved Children is experimental, it’s brave, it’s important. And – reader’s jackpot – it’s a darn good read too.