This is an immensely difficult book to review, simply because the vast majority of casual readers probably won’t automatically enjoy The Children’s Book. It is a dense, complex, ambitious, challenging novel that is not so much a story as it is a detailed portrait of a family, a community and an era. Stretching from 1895 to 1919 and set predominantly in the Kent countryside, A.S. Byatt‘s saga contains no central character or predominant plotline; instead it chronicles the historical, cultural and social context of the Victorian/Edwardian period and the effect it has on three families and their assorted associates.
Humphrey and Olive Wellwood live in an idyllic cottage called Todefright, where they host midsummer parties and watch as their brood of children (with special emphasis on their two eldest, Tom and Dorothy) play in the sun. Olive is a successful children’s writer, seeking new inspiration from Prosper Cain, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who in turn has two children: Julian and Florence. Connecting these two families with the third is Philip Warren, a lower-class runaway hiding in the museum, who is discovered by Tom and Julian and sent to become an apprentice to Benedict Fludd, a manic potter who lives with his vague, inert daughters, Imogen and Pomona. Secrets abound in each household: infidelities, political agendas, hidden pasts, simmering hatreds and changeling children.
At the book’s core are the various relationships between parents and children; whether they be foster parents, illegitimate children, unwanted pregnancies, secret parentages, or even a play on the term that artists often use in referring to their work as “their children.” In most cases, it is this need to create that drives the characters, and how that which is created can be exploited, betrayed or destroyed. Olive tries to reach her children through personalized fairytales, whilst simultaneously drawing on them for inspiration; in a much darker version of this somewhat parasitical relationship, Fludd pulls creativity out of his daughters in a horrific way, and is forced to conceal the finished products. Creativity seems to have a destructive force, both on the artist and the muse, just as the parent neglects or preys on the lives of the younger generation.
The consequences are dire: Tom is caught in stasis between childhood and adulthood; Imogen and Pomona are reduced to listless, lifeless shells. In their turn, all the children of the novel grow from the innocence of childhood into gradual disillusionment and frustration as they experience their awakening to the world; most having been emotionally, mentally and physically sapped by the older generation. The inevitability of WWI on the horizon comes almost (and oddly) as a relief.
As always, Byatt’s distinctive prose is beautifully rendered, and used to its best effect when dealing with the thoughts and ideas of the extensive cast. The sentences are short and somewhat choppy, lending them an immediacy and spontaneity that initially feels too abrupt, but soon becomes natural. The narrative flows in and out of different minds, and points of view switch from character to character mid-paragraph, and sometimes even mid-sentence. It all gives the impression that the reader is an intimate and yet distant observer to these people’s lives; privy to their day-to-day occurrences and yet cut off from several of the darkest secrets which are alluded to, but never elaborated on in their entirety. We are given glimpses into their secret worlds, but no clear answers.
Although the sheer number of characters is rather overwhelming at first, I felt a slow but steady pull into their lives, regarding who they are and what shaped them, be it other family members, the art that they create, or the period of history they live in. I’ve seen this book described as a “cultural study” and that’s a fairly succinct way of putting it. An author of historical fiction has the task of making the past come alive, and I think Byatt succeeds in making her characters relatable to a contemporary audience, whilst still keeping them products of their time in terms of their expectations, thought-patterns and behaviour. The Victorian era was a period of stifling repression and the inevitable uprising that followed, as movements of the anarchists and suffragettes stir things up, and the ideologies of sexuality and class differences up-heave the social norms.
Byatt examines how this political backdrop of the artistic and political life of Europe can affect a single individual, and in this effort she certainly shows her research. There are huge blocks of information and exposition that detail the historical context that the characters inhabit, with extensive commentary on political issues, vast tracts of dialogue from speeches on various ideologies, and short appearances from the likes of J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde.
This is where The Children’s Book will divide viewers. It is a slow-paced, meandering read, told in excessive detail. There is not an outfit, a meal, a puppet show, or a work of art that goes by without it being described down to the last nuance. To be honest: yes, it does detract from the story. In order for the reader not to miss the contextual symbolism and thematic depth, Byatt makes sure to list ALL of it, and much of the detail on clothing and architecture is simply superfluous. Many unprepared readers might find themselves rushing through the details in order to get to a plot that simply isn’t coming. For better or worse, the details ARE the plot, linked inextricably with the character studies and the overarching subject matter.
Needless to say, some readers will be more patient than others. The family drama is infinitely more interesting than the history lesson, but toward the end of the novel, both aspects start to tally up to the same page-count. I have to admit, I skimmed at times.
Another aspect worth mentioning is that the blurb is somewhat misleading in its mention of WWI, accidentally giving the impression that the war is a significant part of the book. In actuality, the war begins when the story is about to close: although several closing chapters provide details on the fates of various characters during the fighting, it swiftly skips ahead to a post-war coda. That is not to say that the war segment is mishandled (it is tragically appropriate given the way the “children” of the title meet their futures), only that the book description gives the war more attention than it probably should. Rest assured, this is not a war story.
There also seems to be a growing tendency to compare this book favourably with Byatt’s most famous novel: Possession: A Romance, with the general assertion being: “if you liked Possession, you’ll love The Children’s Book! This advertising gimmick is another misnomer. It does not necessarily follow that if you enjoyed the previous, you’ll like the latter. Though it is written in the same delicate style and with the same reliance on fairytales and myths to provide thematic resonance, Possession was essentially a romance and a historical mystery. The Children’s Book is quite different, with vastly different aims in mind, and whereas Possession closed on hope and bittersweetness, this book is markedly more subdued and desultory.
I feel as though I haven’t given this a “good” review when in actuality I immensely enjoyed this novel. I was moved by the characters, fascinated by the style and intrigued by much (though not all) of the detail. It is however, most certainly not for everyone; it demands your full attention, as well as a heck of a lot of patience that some may feel is tested on a novel that not only takes its time, but which concludes on a rather open, indecisive note. Hopefully this review will help you decide whether or not it’s for you.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering why this distinctively “non-fantasy” book is reviewed here, it is mainly because of Byatt’s extensive use of mythology and fairytales in her creation of story, world and character. The narrative is full of allusions to traditional tales; often entire chapters are devoted to Olive’s fantasy tales for children and extensive imagery, and themes and symbolism from folklore are invoked to shed light on motivation and meaning. Though more historical novel and human drama, there is extensive use of the fantasy genre at work in The Children’s Book.)