The Children's Book by A S Byatt

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The Children's Book by A S Byatt

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This is a rich and vast novel that is both thought provoking but at the same time easy to read about childhood and children's stories. Set between the late Victorian age and World War One, it tells of an age obsessed by children's stories and follows the lives of a number of families and their own children at various ends of the social spectrum.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 624 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099535454

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Antonia Byatt's Booker-nominated The Children's Book (her first novel for seven years) is a staggering, complex and multi-layered book, set between the last years of Victoria's reign and the end of the First World War. Although this is undoubtedly an intelligent book, full of learning and ideas, ranging from class, early feminism, Fabianism and anarchism, it is highly readable and accessible. The author's stance is that this was a unique time for children in the UK, freed from the 'be seen and not heard' of the early Victorian age, but before the 'treat them like adults' of the post war loss of innocence. It was a time when children, at least rich children, were allowed to be free and adult authors like JM Barrie wrote both about and for children and was also widely read by adults.

At the centre of this (or perhaps more accurately close to the centre) is the writer of children's fairy stories, Olive Wellwood and her family, including the oldest boy, Tom, who is much like a Peter Pan figure. The story follows her family of seven children, their two cousins, the family of the curator of what is to become the Victoria and Albert museum and the family of a local potter in the arts and crafts movement.

The cast of characters, many of them adolescents at the start, is truly daunting at first, and yet each one is neatly differentiated with minimum effort. I must admit that in the early pages it was sometimes difficult to remember who was related to whom (perhaps something like a cast of characters would have helped) but I gained heart from the fact that clearly the author had had similar problems when at one point she clearly makes an error when one attendee at a party who has already left in dramatic fashion mistakenly re-appears. But as the book draws on, we get to know these characters well and the problems of keeping track abate.

The story follows these children growing up and the lives of the adults who often act more like children. Their lives are cleverly interwoven and without giving too much away, it's a safe bet that when the First World rears its head, the reader's heart strings will be well and truly tugged.

Yet, it is a novel driven by ideas rather than emotions. The first half in particular is slow moving - not in terms of the reading but in terms of the fact that not much happens. There are summer camps, trips to the Great Exhibition in Paris and general lazy summer days. But this pays dividends towards the end as it slowly allows you to care for this vast cast and what happens to them.

The only times I struggled with the book were at the start and end of the Silver Age chapters. For the most part the author is able to focus on the many lives covered and at the same time to put this into cultural perspective. These are important passages that explain the world in which these children were growing up - or not growing up in some cases. But here the author tries to convey a vast array of historical and social historical information that, while impressive, didn't flow for me - they were dry. I got the sense that this was what was important to the author and yet she had been told to reduce it for the sake of the novel. What is left then is a dense, fact-packed few pages - and it is only a few pages out of a 600+ page book - that added only a modest amount. I felt I was being told, when the author had so effectively shown me the same thing earlier in the book.

This is a minor niggle though. For the most part I loved it and I was deeply moved at the end. The depth of the layering of the stories and social history meant that every time I shut the book, my mind was wandering and thinking about the implications. A novel that makes you think is a rarity and to be treasured. Plus it will make you want to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum which is never a bad thing.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

The book ends with the horror that was the First World War although this is only briefly covered here. For a similarly moving account of battle in the Second World War we can recommend Atonement by Ian McEwan. Of course, AS Byatt's Booker winning Possession is an excellent read.

Booklists.jpg The Children's Book by A S Byatt is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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