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The Children's Book

by A.S. Byatt

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The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
© Knopf
Knopf, October 2009

A.S. Byatt's novel The Children's Book was short-listed for 2009's Man Booker Prize. It is a flawed masterpiece.

The Children's Book is long and often confusing, yet the writing is superb. The cast of characters is spread across a Victorian and Edwardian canvas that stretches in often too-intimate detail from June 19, 1895 to May, 1919. A list of characters would have been extremely helpful; however, there is none, and the reader must grapple with a host of characters who cross the stage.

They come with names straight out of Dickens. There is Olive Grimwith Wellwood, a writer of books for children, and married to an erstwhile banker who has left the profession to write about economics. He has been writing articles under the nom de plume, The March Hare. Toby Youlgreave wrote his dissertation on Ovid, but his passion is English fairy mythology. Arthur Dobbin is a "solemn young man," and it is entirely befitting that his surname is another word for a horse. Augustus Steyning lives in Nutcracker Cottage. It is all very English.
The back stories for the principal characters are precise in their detail, but perfect to reflect an age in which there were no Blackberries, televisions, or fast-paced lives. If you can set aside a couple of hours in which to begin reading this novel so that you can get the cadence, meet the initial cast of characters, and parse their multitudinous relationships, then you will find that spark that encourages you to invest the time necessary to compete this long journey through their world.

A character writes that "An illusion is a complicated thing, and an audience is a complicated creature. Both need to be brought from flyaway parts to a smooth, composite whole." While this reference is to a marionette show at a Mid-Summer Night party, it refers equally to the entire novel. The illusion is that all is well, that the families are reasonably happy, that things are as they seem. The time was a transition between the well-ordered, rules-oriented life under Queen Victoria through the hedonistic time of Edward toward a period when there was some disintegration of the archetypal English caste system. Victorians saw their children as beings who led nearly separate lives from parents who may have seen them no more than an hour or so each day. The Edwardians actually treated their children as capable of conversation.
While the Wellwoods - and many others - present a facade of eminent respectability, there is a dark underside. Olive has taken a lover and is pregnant by him after six children by her husband Humphrey, who has also taken a lover and sired a child by her. This mix of the good and bad is mitigated by their social consciousness as evidenced by their active memberships in the socially progressive societies of the day such as the Fabians. No wonder then, they take in young Philip Warren, a youth straight out of Dickens. His father is dead, his mother paints china in a factory, and he has run away to draw pictures and to become a great potter. He is found living in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is taken in, cleaned up, and work with a potter is arranged for him. It is his story that forms a central core of the novel.

The plot, in all its complexity, is a tour de force, drawing, as it does, on fairy tales and making the history of the period a crucial element. Principal characters are fully realized, even down to the clothes they wear. Characters are always "in character," never straying outside the bounds of their fictional lives. Yet, this is not a novel for everyone. It is long and there is a huge cast of characters. The reader who is willing to invest time and energy will find The Children's Book rewarding, entertaining, and educational as to the mores of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
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