Review

The Children’s Book

by A. S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt’s new novel, THE CHILDREN’S BOOK, will
inevitably draw comparisons with her Booker Prize-winning
POSSESSION: A Romance, considered by many to be her finest (or, at
least, her most commercially successful) work. Although some of the
comparisons are justified --- both rely on mythic and fairy tale
elements to underscore plot and theme --- THE CHILDREN’S BOOK
is far less an exploration of individuals and of individual
relationships than it is of a whole time and place as viewed
through the lens of one particular family and their host of
acquaintances.

The time and place is England in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, bridging the transition between the Victorian and
Edwardian ages. The family is the large Wellwood clan, headed by
the writer Olive Wellwood and her husband Humphrey. Humphrey has
made a successful career as a banker, but is derailed by his desire
to revile his employer in pseudonymous articles written for
socialist publications. As Humphrey reinvents himself as a
successful writer and social critic, Olive comes under increasing
financial pressure to support the family by writing immensely
popular fantasy fiction for young people, inspired not only by the
fairy tales of Grimm and others but also by their idyllic country
house, Todefright, and by her own brood of children.

Just as Olive constructs imaginary worlds on paper, she also
constructs a “reality” of her family’s life:
“The woods, the Downs, the lawn, the hearth, the stables were
a real reality, kept in being by continuous inventive willpower. In
weak moments she thought of her garden as the fairytale palace the
prince or princess must not leave on pain of bleak disaster. They
were inside a firewall, outside which grim goblins mopped and
mowed. She had made, had written, this world with the inventive
power with which she told her stories.” As the novel
progresses, readers discover just how tenuous this family’s
reality is and the kinds of secrets that are masked by the image
projected to the outside world.

That image is largely one of art, a self-consciously Bohemian
identity that is introduced masterfully in one of the novel’s
opening chapters, a brilliant account of the family’s annual
midsummer party at which the family and their assembled guests
(nearly all of whom will go on to play their own roles in the drama
that unfolds) play parts in a Shakespearean play. The heady mix of
childhood fantasy, art-making and thinly veiled sexual desire sets
the stage for everything that is to follow, which includes
long-buried family secrets, life-changing encounters, and an
abundance of children trying to find their way either within or
deliberately outside of their parents’ idealistic,
assertively creative lifestyle.

This generation of children, Byatt argues compellingly through
literary and historical example, had a particularly difficult time
with this process, given as their elders were to maintaining
permanently childlike sensibilities, engaging in youthful
fantasies, conducting frivolous entertainments, and writing
literature ostensibly aimed at children but also read by adults.
It’s no wonder that a character such as Olive’s oldest
son, Tom, is tragically altered forever by his one attempt to
follow convention by heading to boarding school, an experience that
causes him to retreat from society permanently: “He had
sensed that the Garden of England was a garden through a
looking-glass, and had resolutely stepped through the glass and
refused to return. He didn’t want to be a grown-up.” Of
course, as Byatt reminds us, in the shattering closing chapters of
the novel, the Great War was looming on the horizon, forcing
members of all the generations that lived through it to grow up
despite themselves.

There’s no doubt that Byatt’s latest, like many of
her most accomplished novels, poses intellectual challenges for the
reader. She often draws back from her own plots to place them in
historical and literary context, not only littering the narrative
with encounters with real-life figures (including the anarchist
Emma Goldman, the playwright Oscar Wilde and the sculptor Auguste
Rodin) but also pausing to reflect on the place of all this in the
larger philosophical and aesthetic debates of England and the
Continent during this time period. It’s tempting to think of
THE CHILDREN’S BOOK, then, as primarily a “novel of
ideas,” an exploration of those debates in fictional guise.
But that’s not it at all.

Byatt’s genius lies in combining these big ideas with a
story that, although far-reaching and in many ways unconventional,
is nevertheless a ripping good tale of a family’s journey
from innocence (or something like it) to experience. Her
painstaking utilization of detail, her exploration of key
characters’ inner lives and aspirations, her trademark use of
stories within stories to underscore character, plot and theme ---
all these things ground THE CHILDREN’S BOOK in storytelling
as firmly as it is rooted in literary and historical theory and
make the novel one that will deeply engage readers both emotionally
and intellectually.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 26, 2010

The Children’s Book
by A. S. Byatt

  • Publication Date: August 10, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 896 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307473066
  • ISBN-13: 9780307473066