Monday, 22 March 2010

The Children's Book by A S Byatt


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: The Children’s Book is a very ambitious work. The story begins in 1895 and the narrative carries us forward to 1919.

It is a vast book in every way – lots of characters are introduced, events twist and turn and many dark secrets are revealed. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories and she lives in a rambling house with her husband Humphrey (banker turned writer/lecturer) and numerous children. They are a Fabians with many liberal ideas in how society and families should function. But although Olive obviously loves her family her writing comes first and there is a general air of benign neglect. At the V & A Museum she meets Phillip, a young boy who has run away from the Potteries. He “wants to make something” and proves to be artistic and talented. Olive links him up with the Flood family who live some miles away. Benedict Fludd is an eccentric (but brilliant) potter with an alcoholic wife and rather odd children. Other important characters are Humphrey’s brother Basil and his half-German wife Katrina and their children and Major Prosper Cain who runs a department in the V & A.

Although in many ways this is a complex work it is probably one of Byatt’s most accessible novels. There is a weaving of history and fairy stories and she offers us a magical exploration of childhood. But this is far from being picture of idyllic family life – the book is suffused with adultery, child abuse, incest and neglect.

The research has been meticulous and many real people are either referred to or included in the narrative: the Pankhursts, Emily Davis, Marx, Kenneth Grahame, Dreyfus…. The Great War is graphically portrayed – but so depressing when characters you have come to feel affection for are killed.

The Children’s Book is a compelling multi-layered read crammed with incidents and ideas. Would have been a worthy Booker Prize winner!

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