Synopsis (from Wikipedia):
The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he dies and is transformed into a “water baby”, as he is told by a caddis fly — an insect that sheds its skin — and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labor, among other themes.
Reading The Water Babies is like having a large quantity of morals and saccharine forced down your throat, and the constant digression (in particular, the one about salmon rivers; one of many digressions that seemed to have utterly no point!) makes it even more difficult to swallow.
The cloying condescension makes it even more unpalatable, as does the fact that if each meandering incident of digression and every lesson imparted to the reader were removed, we’d be left with a sweet story of about three pages in length.
This was very obviously written with an audience of just one in mind (constant personal references such as, “that’s more than you can do!” are certainly aimed at a specific young boy) and the rambling fairytale appears to have been constructed with the sole purpose of having him grow up to be a good, God-fearing man, which is all very well, but didn’t much endear it to me.
Overall, it was just far too sickly-sweet and moralistic (although the narrator claims the story has no moral on account of it being a fairytale – as if that ever made a difference to morals within tales!) to be completely enjoyable – I prefer not to be lectured while I’m reading!
Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite