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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves. When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves. When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends. But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end. Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.


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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves. When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves. When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends. But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end. Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.

30 review for The Children's Book

  1. 4 out of 5

    Cecily

    BRILLIANT, BUT... Both brilliant and flawed, this book is an extraordinary achievement that doesn’t always work, but is nevertheless a riveting, educational and inspirational read. It was so beautiful and utterly engrossing, that I loved it despite its faults, and found it filling my thoughts and dreams for a considerable time after I finished it. And it visits me still. It describes the creative process (principally writing, puppetry and pottery) in gloriously vivid detail, as it relates to some BRILLIANT, BUT... Both brilliant and flawed, this book is an extraordinary achievement that doesn’t always work, but is nevertheless a riveting, educational and inspirational read. It was so beautiful and utterly engrossing, that I loved it despite its faults, and found it filling my thoughts and dreams for a considerable time after I finished it. And it visits me still. It describes the creative process (principally writing, puppetry and pottery) in gloriously vivid detail, as it relates to some Edwardian families, but at other times reads more like a history text book. THEMES The book is divided into four sections (Beginnings, The Golden Age, The Silver Age and The Age of Lead), but I find it more helpful to consider its main themes: • HUGE CAST Describing events in the interwoven and varied lives of a huge cast of ~30 main characters, over more than 20 years. Their individual importance waxes and wanes as the story progresses, but all are significant, though a few are not as well developed as others. Because they are so intertwined, it all feels rather claustrophobic and incestuous as the book progresses. • HISTORICAL CONTEXT There is detailed historical context of arts and politics at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although those such as Rupert Brooke and the V&A Museum are well-known and the Wellwoods are clearly Byatt’s invention, a reader is not always sure what is fact and what is fiction, so you have to learn to let go, which is odd in the sections that focus on Fabians, artists of various kinds, theosophists, suffragettes, museums etc in general. • ART AND CRAFT It is infused with a tangible love of the decorative arts, via the characters who create objects and the interests of the museum curator: the initial inspiration, evolution of that idea and the process of using it to create something. The detail is, at times, breathtaking – you can almost feel the wet clay slip beneath your fingers, like Philip, who “thought with his fingers and his eyes together”. The visceral power of art, even on other artists, is observed: on seeing a Rodin, “Philip’s first instinct was to turn and run. This was too much. It was so strong that it would destroy him.” Yet when several of them looked at the same sculpture, “none of them saw the same thing as the others”. For a writer, “thoughts... had to stay in the head taking on an independent life, becoming solid objects, to be negotiated”. • SECRETS Not everything is as it first seems; even libertines strive to keep up appearances to some extent. There are secrets that emerge, some more shocking than others and a couple that stretch credulity a little. Discovery sometimes has unexpectedly subtle results, “she had been changed and she did not know how”, minding the lie more than the fact itself because “those who are lied to feel diminished”, whilst also realising that knowing it gave her power. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth and if so, does that vindicate the wrong that is hidden by a lie? “Grey, invisible cats had crept from their bags and were dancing and spitting on stair corners.” • PULLED TWO WAYS This is the aspect that speaks most strongly to me. In so many aspects of my life, throughout my life, I am pulled between two worlds, two choices, two realities. Sometimes I impulsively pick one, whereas at other times, I agonise over the decision, trying to avoid making one at all. Many characters are torn between two worlds: academia or marriage; gay or straight; wealth versus anarchy; being old or young; class barriers; fact and fantasy (“an unreal world... which seemed more real than the real world”); multiple partners etc. The women at Newnham College, Cambridge “felt themselves to be both demure and dangerous, determined and impeded. They found their situation both frustrating and... wildly comic”. • THE POWER OF STORIES The power of story-telling is the most fundamental theme and yet Byatt’s own storytelling is the main weakness in this book. Olive Wellwood is a published children’s author who writes an endless story book for each of her children, but you increasingly wonder whether the stories reflect or mould the children’s characters. Certainly they permeate the children’s lives, “The magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret” and parts of these stories are scattered around the book. For some characters, stories even hold the power of life and death. BRILLIANT, BUT... These multiple aspects cause problems: the narrative style varies widely and at times there is too much catching up to do (whether that be the lives of Byatt’s characters or historical background). When she is rattling off different people’s thoughts in quick succession, especially when using reported speech, you have to read carefully to be sure of who is thinking what and at other times it is just a disjointed stream of facts. Other parts are journalistic and then there are the fairy stories. There is even some wry humour, such as the character who “realised he was able to be an anarchist because he was rich” and later “decided he could help the poor better by studying them than by getting to know them”. Nevertheless, there is so much that is brilliant in this book. As well as insights into creativity, Byatt is especially good at portraying the inner thoughts and outward awkwardness of children of all ages. “The young desired to be free of the adults and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them.” PARALLELS The first two sections of Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child has many echoes of this. See my review HERE. Byatt is a novelist who loves the academic approach to biography, applied to fiction and semi-fiction. This passion is reflected in all four of her novels I’ve now read, with varying degrees of success. (I’ve also read some short stories.) The Children's Book, 4*. This book. Possession, 3*. See my review HERE. The Biographer’s Tale, 2*. See my very old review HERE. Even her myth-based Ragnarok, 4*, is related, as it's interwoven with the life of a child who is largely her. See my review HERE.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Grace Tjan

    I looked forward to read this book. I was ready for a sweeping saga about the turbulent years between the closing of the Victorian age and the dawn of the Edwardian, with all its political, artistic and social ferment, and its culmination in the war to end all wars. Who can better chronicle these years than Byatt, with her deep knowledge of the period and her knack for creating affecting, memorable characters like Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte in Possession: A Romance? Her cast of cha I looked forward to read this book. I was ready for a sweeping saga about the turbulent years between the closing of the Victorian age and the dawn of the Edwardian, with all its political, artistic and social ferment, and its culmination in the war to end all wars. Who can better chronicle these years than Byatt, with her deep knowledge of the period and her knack for creating affecting, memorable characters like Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte in Possession: A Romance? Her cast of characters here is vast, representing nearly the full spectrum of English society at the end of the 19th century. There are, among others, Fabians, potters, suffragettes, Theosophists, working class runaways, a city banker, a museum director, a Russian anarchist and a German puppet master. There are literally dozens of characters that we have to keep track of, and it could be quite a challenge to remember who is who and what their political/ philosophical views are. It doesn’t help at all that each character necessarily gets a short shrift, due to having to share the stage with so many others. This constant shifting of focus means that virtually none of the characters’ stories could be sufficiently explored, and that the ending is robbed of a much-needed poignancy. We can see how she had researched the era extensively, down to its minutiae, and imbibed the spirit of the age. And it is all there on the pages --- historical voice-overs that read as if they had been pasted over from lecture notes or school textbooks. But instead of serving as a rich, multi-layered background to the story, the massive amount of data often overwhelms it, drowning the personal dramas with an intrusive recitation of dates and facts. By the middle of the book, as the years and historical/ personal events pile up, Byatt seems to lose control of the narrative, resulting in something that reads like random updates from half-remembered Facebook buddies: Charles/Karl: still secretly an anarchist and but am going to study at the London School of Economics anyway. Tom: still aimless. Julian: still gay. Wolfgang and Leon from Germany: are here for summer camp and some skinny dipping. A.S. Byatt: the Boer War is still going on. You get the idea. She seems to be very determined to update us on what everyone is doing, in strict chronological order, resulting in some clunky passages that seem to have been lifted directly from her character notes, such as “It was Hedda who, between 1903 and 1907, became more and more obsessed with suffrage, with opposition, with action, with revolt. She followed eagerly, the campaign of the militants, as they broke glass and set bombs, were imprisoned, and later took to hunger-striking and suffered forcible feeding (1909)”. This is in contrast to wonderful descriptive passages elsewhere in the book. In fact, the quality of the writing is very uneven, ranging from the aforementioned clumsiness to polished pieces that we have come to expect from a writer of Byatt’s caliber. I’m convinced that there is a much slenderer, but much better novel or two inside this loose, baggy monster of a book. What it desperately needs is a disciplined editor who can prune the unwieldy narrative and provide a better focus on the characters and issues.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jen Padgett Bohle

    I savored this novel every evening for the 2 months or so that I chipped away at its formidable length. A.S. Byatt has written a whopping, inimitable masterpiece of a heavy handed Victorian England succumbing to the blithe, jaunty Edwardian era which in turn gives way to the disillusionment and terror of trench warfare and World War I. Byatt, so unapologetically erudite, gives us a labyrinthine novel that is both devastating and whimsical. It's full of complexity and contradictions, stories with I savored this novel every evening for the 2 months or so that I chipped away at its formidable length. A.S. Byatt has written a whopping, inimitable masterpiece of a heavy handed Victorian England succumbing to the blithe, jaunty Edwardian era which in turn gives way to the disillusionment and terror of trench warfare and World War I. Byatt, so unapologetically erudite, gives us a labyrinthine novel that is both devastating and whimsical. It's full of complexity and contradictions, stories within stories, and an abundance of detail, both historical and literary, so that people and objects d' art almost become palpable. Byatt can be a bit pedantic at times, and in this work she is often overly descriptive and uses authorial elucidation too much, so that it seems she's doing our research work for us, especially with regard to historical background. Generally, though, her lavish descriptions and exposition work because we're invited, through her garrulity, to live in this world she has built and conjure it according to her exact instructions. Moreover, when she interrupts her narrative fervor it is always exposition concerning historical and social mileposts or facts about the arts and crafts movement, art noveau and pottery. It's pardonable, perhaps appropriate, because so much of the novel centers around modernization --- the shift in art and politics away from Victorian values to modernist art and liberal politics. There are so many beautiful sentences in The Children's Book and the narrative brims with flesh and blood characters and ideas one can mull over and over, that she more than makes up for any shortcomings. Suffice it to say that, in my humble opinion, she has created nothing less than an Edwardian epic. As in Possession, Byatt fully displays her considerable academic talents. In this work, she writes pastiches of World War I poems and victorian children's tales. The novel is so brilliantly infused with fairy tales and children's literature ranging from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and ETA Hoffman to J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame that I'm still, weeks after finishing, working out the intertextuality. Fairy stories, allusions, and sinister tales of children simply inundate the reader. Through the German marionette master, Anselm Stern, Byatt alludes to the darker force of fairy stories, and art in general, a force that will eventually lead to the death of one of the characters. It is also through Stern and his family that Byatt presents German English relations on the eve of WWI and delves into the avante-garde German art and political scene. At the heart of the novel are five families and a cast of dozens, tied together in various ways (blood, art, friendship, politics). Byatt traces their lives and entanglements through more than twenty years and several locales, evoking the effervescence of the 1900 Paris World's Fair, the haunting loneliness of Romney Marsh and Dungeness, the bustle of London, the subversive edges of Bavaria, and finally, the killing fields of Belgium. Vivacious and attractive Olive Wellwood, a children's author and mother of seven (modeled after E. Nesbitt [remember Five Children and It?:]), is at first the central focus of the work, but Byatt regularly shifts between the families and deftly illuminates the lives of both parents and children. Olive and her husband Humphrey Wellwood are socially progressive Fabians, intellectuals, writers, and proponents-not-quite-agitators for social justice,and through them Byatt portrays the complexities of marriage, sexuality, what it means to be a father and what constitutes motherhood. The Wellwoods are also a vehicle for the author to explore the dissonance between creativity and family life, the destructive toll of creativity and art, as well as the melding of the political with the personal. Byatt fleshes out the eldest Wellwood children, the Peter Pan-like Tom who never wants to grow up; serious, tenacious Dorothy; and violent suffragette Hedda, while glossing over the rest of the brood. Olive gives each child a fairy story of his/her own that is obviously an allegory for the child's life. As a foil for Olive and Humphrey's exuberant family, Byatt gives us Humphrey's brother and sister-in-law: the London Wellwoods --- Basil, a banker and Katharina,a wealthy German heiress, along with their children Charles/Karl and Griselda. Basil and Katharina are everything Olive and Humphrey are not: concerned with social conventions, conservative, wealthy, and part of the old Victorian establishment. Charles and Griselda, though, rebel against their parents' ideals and dabble in feminism, anarchy, and socialism. Through Charles/Karl, especially, Byatt develops a theme dealing with hidden identities, masked identities and transformation, as Charles becomes the anarchist Karl. There is the disturbing and tragic Fludd family, with their laudnum-addicted, vacuous mother and (in)famously bizarre, brilliant, and wanton sculptor father who damages his daughters, Pomona and Imogen, in countless cruel ways. Geraint, the oldest sibling of the family, manages to escape the marshes and dilapidated Fludd home, entrenching himself in the London world of finance. Patriarch and artist Benedict, like Olive Wellwood, embodies the dangerous self-absorption and self-destruction art can engender. His brand of fatherhood squarely aligns him with Bluebeard or the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, but throughout the novel Humphrey, Prosper Cain, and other male characters will, to varying degrees, echo this characterization. In juxtaposition to Benedict Fludd is Major Prosper Caine, a curator at the South Kensington (Victoria and Albert) Museum in London, and an expert in the decorative arts, who befriends the Wellwoods and Fludds. He is the embodiment of Victorian chivalry and philanthropy, and it is his charitable actions that often advance the plot. Seemingly the deus ex machina of the story, he is perhaps a bit contrived. Prosper's daughter and son become part of the cast of children that fill the novel, as readers watch them all move from the buoyant naivete of childhood into hapless adulthood. One of the best threads in this novel involves Philip Warren (and eventually his sister, Elsie), apprentice and heir to Benedict Fludd, and an escapee from poverty and the lead-filled air of the potteries. Although the Victorians invented the concept of childhood, the notion that children were developmentally different from adults and should be allowed to play, explore, roam about and speak freely applied only to middle and upper class children. In The Children's Book, Philip and Elsie (and Olive and Violet, by means of flashbacks) are the only glimpse readers get of what childhood is like for impoverished Victorian children. In a notable and poignant opening scene, Cain's son Julian and Olive's son Tom catch Philip in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (where he has been sleeping for weeks) with a stack of expertly rendered drawings of the museum' holdings. Eventually, upon discovering Philip's unparalleled talent with pottery, Olive and Major Cain install him with the Fludd family, where he promptly makes improvements in Benedict's pottery studio, working his way up to master craftsmen and artist. Philip's sister Elsie eventually runs away from the potteries and joins him at the Fludd's home, and becomes a focus of Byatt's narrative primarily due to her relationship with Herbert Methley, (modelled on, it seems, the promiscuous Mr. H.G. Wells) a lubricious libertine who has a knack for impregnating young women. Elsie's redemption comes in the form of her very own fairy godmothers, three women from around the marshes who help her become an independent Edwardian "New Woman" in the vein of Ibsen or G.B. Shaw. And so the story goes. And goes. All the way to Belgium and the machine guns and trenches and mass casualties of World War I. Our Edwardian summer is over; the children have been sacrificed, marching to war for the fairy tale ideals of honor, country, duty, and glory.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    Disappointment - beaten up by Byatt's wooden prose, after which she vomited her semi-digested research over me. Apart from that it is a great book. Admittedly I was disappointed because I had this idea that Byatt was a good and accomplished novelist. Had I believed that this was the author's first novel I might have been excited by its promise and ambition, fooling myself that future books with judicious rewriting and hard pruning would be good literature. Ahhhggrh. Reading this book I was struc Disappointment - beaten up by Byatt's wooden prose, after which she vomited her semi-digested research over me. Apart from that it is a great book. Admittedly I was disappointed because I had this idea that Byatt was a good and accomplished novelist. Had I believed that this was the author's first novel I might have been excited by its promise and ambition, fooling myself that future books with judicious rewriting and hard pruning would be good literature. Ahhhggrh. Reading this book I was struck somewhere round about half way through that this was a translation into English of Ragtime. Since some of you may protest that Ragtime was written in English, perhaps it is better to say that this is a translation into England. Ragtime ends with the invention of Hollywood, The Children's Book with the aftermath of World War One, and naturally given its translation into an English setting there is institutionalised sexual abuse perpetrated on children by children, and more male homosexuality. In addition to both books' interest in creativity, the relationships between adults and children, politics, changing ideas about childhood in particular and society in general due both to the political environment and the appearance of Freud, new technologies (to some extent), and most importantly (arguably) Heinrich von Kleist. Michael Kohlhaas is to Ragtime what On a Theatre of Marionettes is to The Children's Book. Here I am on, to write in terms of this book's images, a shingle shore buffeted by the tide because while I've read the former, I haven't the latter, however the references to it in the text are explicit, and I think the cited argument of the imagined superiority of marionettes over actors is replicated in the exploitative relationship of two creative characters in the book - Olive Wellwood and Benedict Fludd to their children. In which case Byatt takes a critical stance to Kleist rather than simply retelling his story as Doctorow does with Kohlhaas in Ragtime. Had Byatt restricted her story to Wellwood and Fludd and their children, then this would have given the novel a focus, however the effect is diluted because not only we are repeatedly presented with damaged adults whose children are obliged to be preternaturally wise or who are themselves damaged, but also those children don't seem to be different to those of the not visibly damaged adults. We're in the world of Philip Larkin: to be a parent is inherently damaging and to be a child is to be inherently damaged. You may well agree with this. However I don't see how this argument is advanced by setting the novel over the period of the 1890s to 1919 or so. One could put that idea over to the reader without needing thirty years in three hundred plus pages. Having said that Byatt's presentation of those relationship was in places poignant and so a strong point of the book. Byatt says in explanation of the setting People talked, & thought, earnestly & frivolously, about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read & write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children (p300). Well, having read Dostovevsky at an impressionable age I don't think there is anything unusual about the extremes being close together. An over interest in sex and (therefore) an over emphasis on the distinctiveness of (supposedly innocent) childhood seem natural bedfellows - literally so for Benedict Fludd and his unfortunate daughters. I did have a sense that Byatt could have written a non-fiction account of the period, and a feeling that this would have been better and more interesting than her Olive Wellwood who is and is not Edith Nesbit, presumably with bits of Kenneth Grahame thrown in. Perhaps the choice of setting was determined by the First World War, an attempt to add auto-poignancy since most British readers, brought up in the civil religion of the sacrificial patriotism of Remembrance Sunday, will already have a poppy-red picture of the Great War. And indeed when reading the midsummer party scene early in the book and the children are asked what they'd like to be when they had grown up I was already thinking 'dead on the western front' - many readers will be carrying over their own conception of inevitable tragedy into a story with this setting, an author doesn't have to do much, if anything, to evoke it. Having done this, Byatt throws it away. The characters who die in the war are pretty much nothings in narrative terms, children who were barely mentioned. Those who were mentioned, and who I had a rough conception of as individuals (view spoiler)[Dorothy, Charles, Philip (hide spoiler)] survive. Which leads me on to a big problem with the book - there are too many characters, specifically too many characters who are too similar. I've read my Tolstoy, my Dickens, and my Middlemarch - there are authors who can create a vast crowd of inter-connected characters who remain distinctive. Byatt doesn't do that here. A good three quarters of the characters could have been chopped out the story for the all the good they served the narrative (view spoiler)[ for instance what about Gerald whose only purpose seems to have been to show that a young man will grow out of homosexuality if confronted by the right woman? The way this is done in the book would give a believer in the fluidity of human sexuality doubts! I suppose Herbert Methley popping up with his questing penis to make virgin maids pregnant (view spoiler)[ a bit tellynovellaish isn't it - the notion that a virgin woman will become pregnant the first time she has sex? (hide spoiler)] serves some kind of purpose, I do wonder though why Byatt felt the need to repeat essentially the same story twice, or three times when we include Maid Marian, I imagine most people would understand what was involved in extra-martial sex in the days before widespread contraceptive availability, and it disarms the impact of the discovery of the complex marital and familial arrangements of the Wellwood household (hide spoiler)] . A minor problem, if grating, is a kind of overwriting, for instance: Geraint said he could perhaps find a beer to refresh the chauffeur, who refused politely (he had his own beer in his lunch basket, he wanted to get back to his own family, he was aware of Geraint's social predicament, and only residually interested in showing off the automobile to the inhabitants, if any appeared, of Purchase House) (p282). Callous as I am, I actually had no interest in the inner life of the unnamed chauffeur who appears only this once in the book, and I wasn't intending on laying awake at night worrying about him dying on a Kent roadside of beerthirst (view spoiler)[ and maybe you hadn't noticed Geraint's social predicament - so now we have the author intervening to tell you how you should be reacting to her text, and what is worse now you are forced to realise that you don't have a beer convenient in your lunch basket, ah the horror, the horror (hide spoiler)] . And it is an extreme example of Byatt's desire to tell - not show, which exemplifies her whole style throughout the book to the extent that it read like the summary of a much longer book, as though she was writing a letter to the reader explaining what had happened to everybody in her home town over the past twenty years. This was for me the major problem with the book - I found I could read one sentence per page and follow the story perfectly adequately, when as a rule I'm a 'read every word with greedy delight' kind of person. The writing style for me was mostly deadening and distancing, although in places, it did work effectively for instance when Charles and Elsie undress in the pub bedroom (pp555-556) as it helped to convey the briskness of Elsie undressing, looking for hangers, and putting her clothes away. What I missed, to mix media, was something like Michael Hordern's narration to Stanley Kubrick's film of Barry Lyndon. Urrgh, and what about Humphrey talking to his brother Basil at the Midsummer party describing with righteous anger the lives of the London poor while tilting his champagne glass at his brother (p58), could it really be, that in some inconceivably sly way, that Byatt might just possibly be implying that Humphrey Wellwood is a champagne socialist? Please picture me face down on a bleak desk groaning. Similarly Olive Grimwith, from a its grim up north mining community, runs off down south, marries and becomes Wellwood in Kent, where the Garden of England becomes conflated with the Garden of Eden. A natural mistake to make if you haven't read Five Children and It, or Stig of the Dump. Naturally since her sister Violet doesn't marry, she remain resolutely Grim, because Nomen est Omen. Apparently you don't get to be one of Britain's foremost novelists by being subtle. The family narrative is interrupted by interludes giving a précis of the historical background. At first this struck me as simply maladroit (pp 76-77 or pp 164-5) and awful, like the over enthusiastic student so taken by all the material they have turned up in their research that they insist on shovelling it in to the text irrespective as to if it can take its weight. While I appreciate that not every reader is familiar with the Jameson Raid or the Dreyfus Affair for instance but invariably the background history wasn't relevant to Byatt's story. It takes the reader no closer to the business of creative parents eating up their children in service to their own work, or more generally to the hardwork of parents mucking up their children (Larkinish expletives here avoided), particularly since the historical info-dump was not simply the events of the day which we could assume they would have been aware of but also details from the political background which weren't public knowledge and none of the characters in the book could reasonably have known. Secondly doesn't this come with the territory of reading a historical novel, that the reader is a little in the historical dark? Later I felt that this was in imitation of Ragtime, maybe I am misremembering, but Doctorow manages these historical interludes more successfully than Byatt. Speaking of which it was particularly painting by numbers that Hedda became a Suffragette. The distinctive feature of the Suffragettes was not that they were a mass movement, or that they dominated the Suffrage debate, or that they were a significant force among the Women's Suffrage movement, but that they had the best media strategy - as evidenced by the dominance of Old Mother Pankhurst and her daughters in popular memory chaining themselves to railings, locking themselves up in the houses of Parliament on census night, and going on hunger strike. Gate of Angels I feel, handles the movement for women's suffrage far better. Purely statistically if there is a woman character before the first world war engaged in women's suffrage, she is far more likely to be a Suffragist than a Suffragette, and if a suffragette that is likely to be because of a personal connection with the Pankhurst clan or one of their action events and so ought to skew the narrative or that character's place in the novel in a particular direction (such as to the Magistrates court). The good parts of this novel in my opinion were the set piece of the Wellwood's Midsummer party, early in the book - there are intimations of what is going to go wrong, and already we sense the unstable soil the lives described are built on. Olive's stories are a further strong point. The descriptions of Olive's and Philip's creativity too (view spoiler)[ though I do wonder about Philip running away from the Potteries - the centre of British ceramic creation - to London - the centre of British ceramic consumption - to learn how to make pots, but ok - he's a teenager and apparently we have to accept they will simply do crazy things (view spoiler)[ and I thought that Philip and Elsie had wandering accents (view spoiler)[ leaving to one side the question of the correct conventions for representing a Burslem accent in Received Pronunciation spelling rules (hide spoiler)] , in places Byatt had them speaking in some kind of accent - but this didn't to me to seem to be consistently applied (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)] . Moments like Charles and Elsie undressing were also I felt effective. Early I read in phases, thinking that this novel cycled from good sections to bad. By the Paris exhibition, specifically when Olive Wellwood pops up apparently simply to shake her bum at Auguste Rodin, something of complete narrative insignificance, the weaknesses of this book completely outweighed its strengths and ambition. A good book is buried in here, but you need scissors, in my opinion, to get it out - I'd say by chopping this book down to about 120 to 150 pages in length. Actually what The Children's Book convinces me of is that a non-fiction book centred on the lives of Edith Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame, taking in JM Barrie (view spoiler)[ incidentally I agree with Tom Wellwood completely about Peter Pan, how fine it would be if no one applauded at the end of the play and obliged the actors to improvise - 'oh, no, Tinkerbell's dead' (hide spoiler)] & co. could be a very interesting read. What I am missing is a sense of an editor asking Byatt what she wanted to achieve with this book, what was it's focus, what is the story she wants to tell since she seems to be doing two distinctly different things at once. On the one hand we have a story about the complex family that a children's author constructs about herself and her relationship with her creativity, her children, and her own childhood. This to some extent commented on by reference to other families creative (the Fludds) or less creative (the other Wellwoods, the Cains). While on the other hand there is a turn of the century epic of love and loss engaged in the progressive politics of the era and historical events from Boer War to World War One. The Olive Wellwood story, I felt was the best, yet was oddly diluted by everything else which was going on - little of which served to illuminate her story. Further although this is a fiction, it is also inspired by actual writers of period for and about children: Nesbit (complex family), Grahame (father-son relationship), Barrie (observer of children). Byatt's book I feel feeds off them, but because it uses invented characters like Wellwood and Fludd, tells us nothing about them, and so turns its back on the opportunity of commenting upon their well known childrens' books. A frustrating experience. I wondered quite what Byatt's perspective was. The Fabians here are, at best, mostly harmless champagne socialists, the Imperialists - well they are imperialists. Anarchism is rejected. Creativity is bad for the people around a creative person (mostly), education is isolating and in men may dangerously incline you towards homosexual lifestyles. I wondered if, by its absence, Byatt was falling back on her childhood Quakerism and showing that one needs a sensible religious and ethical core to avoid doing harm to others by action or inaction in life, but apparently according to ever-correct wikipeadia she has abandoned Christianity. So I'm left with Life is Suffering. Not sure I needed to read this novel to appreciate that noble truth.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Reading The Children's Book for the second time has solidified its place as one of my all-time favorite books. Historical fiction when written well is one of my favorite genres. Here Byatt has used her characters, settings and action to bring history--in all its parts--to life, supplementing with occasional narratives on history and the arts. We readers encounter the family, the arts in many forms, philosophy and religion, politics, education, women's rights and gender politics, everything it se Reading The Children's Book for the second time has solidified its place as one of my all-time favorite books. Historical fiction when written well is one of my favorite genres. Here Byatt has used her characters, settings and action to bring history--in all its parts--to life, supplementing with occasional narratives on history and the arts. We readers encounter the family, the arts in many forms, philosophy and religion, politics, education, women's rights and gender politics, everything it seems in the years leading up to World War I. These were tumultuous years of societal change in England and Europe, generational change that Byatt shows through the development of her novel. Perhaps I will read this again someday for a third time and savor the writing again, the evocative descriptions of pots being created or the sea roiling off the marshes. I do recommend this novel strongly to readers who are interested in spending time with these people and their stories. They can't be hurried. ............................................................................................................................................................................................ *[5* Review written October, 2010. First read 9/3/2010 to 10/04/2010. This is a portrait of turn of the century Britain and, to a lesser extent, the continent, through the eyes of several families involved in the arts and crafts movement, finance, and others on their periphery. It follows the lives of 2 generations up to and through the disaster of World War I, with it's devastating loss of life. We see the suffragist movement, changes in philosophies and economics, developments in the arts, and turmoil in various families. The turmoil of the time is actually written in some of these families. I found that this book takes time---for digesting all that takes place and all the history and facts that are presented. But I also liked it for that reason.]

  6. 4 out of 5

    TBV

    Some of my favourite things… Presenting a wide panorama of history, a large canvas of art in its different forms, and a work that is very good literature, The Children’s Book ticks several boxes for me. This novel itself is intensely imaginative, and many of the characters in turn are creative and imaginative. There are stories within stories, layers within layers, plots and subplots. I couldn’t help but visualise author A.S. Byatt as a puppeteer, expertly manipulating her creations in this magic Some of my favourite things… Presenting a wide panorama of history, a large canvas of art in its different forms, and a work that is very good literature, The Children’s Book ticks several boxes for me. This novel itself is intensely imaginative, and many of the characters in turn are creative and imaginative. There are stories within stories, layers within layers, plots and subplots. I couldn’t help but visualise author A.S. Byatt as a puppeteer, expertly manipulating her creations in this magical tour de force. There are four sections to the novel: Beginnings, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Age of Lead. These cover the period from the late Victorian, 1895 to be precise, through the reigns of Edward VII and part of George V’s reign to 1919 after WWI. The Anglo Boer War, anarchists and assassinations, the death of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, Fabians, Theosophists, Suffragettes, strikes, WWI, to name but a few, are all there. At the beginning the numerous offspring of the various families in this tale are young children with their own stories and histories, and Olive Wellwood writes books for the children in her home, each with their own personalised story which is constantly adapted and updated. (And we get to read extracts!) She focuses in particular on the stories for Tom, her beloved son. "She [Dorothy] opened the story-cabinet. There were books for Robin and Harry. Florian’s was now quite fat. The one Olive had been carrying was Tom’s – his story now occupied a series of books, taking up a whole shelf, dwarfing the others.” Just as monsters lurk in the dark corners of imagined children's stories, so shadows loom in the real world and in the world of these children. Olive hides all sorts of creatures and objects in the underground passages and hidden tunnels of the stories she writes for the children, but the adults also hide aspects of themselves as well as facts from one another and particularly from the children. Says Olive: “She had a sense, when she thought about it, which she tried not to do, that everything unseen in her household had shifted its invisible place. Things had always been behind thick, felted, invisible curtains, or closed into heavy, locked, invisible boxes. She herself had hung the curtains, held the keys to the boxes, made sure that the knowable was kept from the unknown, in the minds of her children, most of all.” The children play, discover and grow up during Queen Victoria’s reign, and the adults by and large are creating in one way or another. At the end of this era several of the characters travel to France to attend the Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1900. Chapters 21-23 are devoted to this event and there are wonderful descriptions of it. In addition there are many references to art and literature, as well as discussions about events and politics of that time. The good times continue in Edwardian times, and during this period many real-life authors wrote children’s stories which are referenced here. Some of the children read Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Golden Age’. The children of the families in this novel become adults and find their own paths in life. These young people have to deal and come to terms with their own problems and tragedies. The Golden Age has faded away, and strikes, assassinations, violent protests and wanton destruction become the order of the day. By the Age of Lead the world is heading towards an all out conflict. Armies mobilise, soldiers march, leaders congratulate themselves and celebrate with champagne. It would all be over by Christmas (or so they said). And of course WWI will impact greatly on the characters in this novel. # People mentioned other than the members of the fictional families were mostly real people. There are stories within stories within stories; stories about children and for children, stories for the child in me. With references to many historic events, people famous and infamous, allusions and references to literature as well as art in its many forms, there are too many layers to peel here and far too many people to mention, so I leave you to read and explore. # “‘It’s about the borders between the real and the imagined. And the imagined has more life than the real – much more – but it is the artist who gives the figures life.’” says one of the characters in the book about a particular artwork, but I think that this quote may be applied to the novel as a whole. # And so straight to my favourites-2020 shelf! # I was writing the review as I read; adding, deleting, scrapping as I wrote, reminding me of Olive writing and rewriting her children’s stories, in particular Tom’s story (except that my writing doesn’t compare). Here is today’s version of my review. I’m posting it as I’m not sure that I’ll ever be happy with it. Too much to say - what to leave out? what to include? - a zillion thoughts rushing through my mind but nothing coalescing into what I want.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    Three days after finishing the audiobook version of this novel, I’m still partly in the detailed and intricate world Byatt created. I didn’t want the book to end and I miss the characters. A saga about the lives of its inter-related characters between 1895 and 1919, the novel concerns itself with the history of England and to a lesser extent Germany during that period. It deals with subjects including Fabian socialism, the Arts and Crafts movement, neo-paganism, the anarchist movement, education Three days after finishing the audiobook version of this novel, I’m still partly in the detailed and intricate world Byatt created. I didn’t want the book to end and I miss the characters. A saga about the lives of its inter-related characters between 1895 and 1919, the novel concerns itself with the history of England and to a lesser extent Germany during that period. It deals with subjects including Fabian socialism, the Arts and Crafts movement, neo-paganism, the anarchist movement, education, women’s suffrage, writing for children, puppetry and pottery. It’s also concerned with parent / child and sibling relationships, sexuality, truth, trust, deceit, betrayal and hypocrisy. The work is hugely ambitious; a monster of book filled to bursting point with detail. Clothing, meals, parties, modes of transport and works of art are minutely described. Historical characters share the stage with fictional ones: an aging Oscar Wilde is seen at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, Rupert Brooke attends Fabian summer camp, the characters go to an early performance of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Marie Stopes is met when she is studying in Germany. Byatt painstakingly recreates the late Victorian and the Edwardian period as she explores the lives of a small segment of the population: artists, free-thinkers and intellectuals. I might have enjoyed the work less if I had known more about the time period in which it’s set and the subjects with which it deals. As it is, I knew virtually nothing and learned a great deal. Listening to the novel felt like taking an immersion course in the social history of the period leading up to and including World War I. However, as interesting as I found the world of the novel, the wealth of detail is also its major weakness. At times it felt like Byatt had dumped the entire contents of her filing cabinet into the book; it was as if she couldn’t bear to leave out a single detail, no matter how insignificant to the narrative. This makes the work somewhat unwieldy and overblown. On the other hand, it also makes it closer to the style of a Victorian novel, which I assume is what Byatt was aiming to achieve. The audiobook was beautifully narrated by Nicolette McKenzie, who found the perfect voice for each of the characters. This could not have been easy to do, given the large cast of characters and the fact that a significant number of them are much the same age. I was very glad that I listened to rather than read this book. The narration really brought the characters alive. I’ve been undecided whether to give the book 4 or 5 stars. The fact that I didn’t want it to end would generally put a book into the “amazing” category. However, I’m also aware that it’s a flawed work, which could have been perfect with just a little more discipline. So I’ll settle on 4-1/2 stars for now. That may go up to 5 if I’m still thinking about the characters a week or two from now. Edited on 1 December 2012: Well, a week on and I am still thinking about the characters and missing the world of the novel. I've amended the rating to 5 stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Moira Russell

    (Including some status updates material in this - ) Not even at the halfway point yet, but I am so baffled and dismayed. I love Byatt (loved Possession like everyone else, but I schooled myself to love the Frederica Potter quartet and other novels too), this book is all about topics I love, and so it totally should be my jam, as the kids say, and....instead it's like the dire moment in Little Women when Meg wails about how the jelly won't jell. I think the biggest problem is the characters - som (Including some status updates material in this - ) Not even at the halfway point yet, but I am so baffled and dismayed. I love Byatt (loved Possession like everyone else, but I schooled myself to love the Frederica Potter quartet and other novels too), this book is all about topics I love, and so it totally should be my jam, as the kids say, and....instead it's like the dire moment in Little Women when Meg wails about how the jelly won't jell. I think the biggest problem is the characters - some critics compared this to Middlemarch, but Middlemarch is all _about_ its characters, who leap immediately to mind -- the idealistic Dorothea, the vulnerable Lydgate, wild Will, vengeful Causabon, each face and personality rendered distinct. The relative flatness of people in Possession didn't matter because it was a satire, and the amount of satire in the Frederica Quartet -- contrasted with some real tragedies, like Jude Mason's -- carried those people fairly well. (Frederica was that very odd thing, a self-portrait intended to provoke dislike: Byatt seems to specialize in that.) Also, there were a LOT FEWER people in even the Quartet books. It's not so much that there are too many people in this novel -- although there are -- but they're really not differentiated. If I have to keep reminding myself Phyllis is not Dorothy (Phyllis is the pretty shallow one, Dorothy is the studious friend of Tom, Tom is his mother's favourite, Julian is....Geraint? no no) that is not a good thing. Byatt is, like Lawrence ('whom I cannot escape, and cannot love'), Murdoch (Byatt's moral and aesthetic ideal), even, dare I say, Drabble, and certainly Lessing, one of those most frustrating writers -- a naturally gifted novelist who keeps wrenching Story around to serve Theme. This is especially bad in Byatt because when she includes bits of retold myths, or children's stories, or pastiche poetry, you at once relax into what she's telling you -- it feels free and unstrained in a way all that carefully glossy worked-over prose doesn't. In Possession, which was a story about people entranced by stories, and had much less of that "writing is bad for families and especially mothers and really especially children" crap in it, it all worked. But as she herself said, she knew people would love Possession; she considers it lesser. She loves writing these long strenuous brain-taxing half-nonfiction-catalogues. She really is like Lawrence -- her gift plays free in short stories, devastating and wonderful, but she puts it into harness and blinders writing anything at length. To top it off, neither the potted history, which should provide the grand dark-and-gold-illuminated backdrop for the (flat) people, nor the close-ups on the richly decorated plates, embroidered dresses and kimonos, building ornaments and so on, are distinct enough for me to picture, so it all winds up being a kind of grand-sounding blur. Possession had the anchor of the actual poetry and academic papers and fairytales and letters; they were the actual backbone of the story. Here, the interludes of Olive's children's tales serve mainly to remind what a good writer Byatt is when she isn't dragging us by the hand around her own whistle-stop tour of Cultural History. (I remember vaguely learning in grad school about the Morris wallpapers and chairs and carpets and tapestries and hangings and whatever else the Pre-Raphs churned out like medieval factories, but I know nothing about pottery and can't visualize it and so don't really care. This is disastrous, as pottery is one of the main Themes of the book.)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    In my reading of this I alternated between deep admiration of Byatt and deep irritation with her. She has put all the force of her prodigious talent into burying the threads of two or three really interesting novels of reasonable length in this over-sized book. In a way, it is like a vast tapestry of the cultural movements in England, and to some extent Germany, from 1895 to 1919 (with fascinating personal stories that can be perceived if you peer up close), but really it's more of a vast tangle In my reading of this I alternated between deep admiration of Byatt and deep irritation with her. She has put all the force of her prodigious talent into burying the threads of two or three really interesting novels of reasonable length in this over-sized book. In a way, it is like a vast tapestry of the cultural movements in England, and to some extent Germany, from 1895 to 1919 (with fascinating personal stories that can be perceived if you peer up close), but really it's more of a vast tangled mess, bogged down with interminable descriptions, leaden fairy tales, bland discourses on history and cultural and artistic movements. We are never allowed to forget Byatt's erudition for a moment. And yet some of the characters are so very haunting. It's intensely frustrating that this is not a leaner, better book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    The Children's Book gives the reader a big and sprawling story. It centers around Humphrey and Olive Wellwood, living in a big house called Todefright (love that name), and all their kids, friends, neighbors and other people that impact their life. But most of all their kids. There's quite a lot of historical background to all of this, and the main focus is on art communities and women's rights. The book spans from around 1885 to the end of the First World War. We get to meet a great variety of The Children's Book gives the reader a big and sprawling story. It centers around Humphrey and Olive Wellwood, living in a big house called Todefright (love that name), and all their kids, friends, neighbors and other people that impact their life. But most of all their kids. There's quite a lot of historical background to all of this, and the main focus is on art communities and women's rights. The book spans from around 1885 to the end of the First World War. We get to meet a great variety of characters struggling with different life challenges. Most of them are artistic and/or politically active, and they give us many different perspectives to delve into. And Byatt writes children very well. But there are simply too many characters for everyone's story to be properly fleshed out. The focus shifts from one to another as the pages turn, and although some get more attention than others, there aren't really any clear main characters that we get to follow consistently throughout the book. One thing I really liked, though, is that we get to see most characters both from the inside, and through the eyes of others. Byatt pulls this of pretty well. The book is filled with long passages describing glazed pots, drawings, colors and textures, nature, puppet theater, etc. etc., and Olive, the matriarch of the Wellwood family, writes fairy tales, some of which the reader gets to sample. To my mind, Byatt is a lot better at making up new fairy tales than she is at writing fake Victorian poetry (Possesion was a dnf for me). All the lush descriptions of form and color in this book made me want to draw again, for the first time in ages - which is great. But all the historical background that we are also presented with reads mostly like long passages of non-fiction. This fleshed out the background and society, but often made the book a dense, slow read, and making a dent in it felt difficult. So when I decided on only three stars for this book, that's mainly because most of it felt like a drag to read. In between exciting and interesting passages where we get to delve into the mind and feelings of a character, there were a lot of history and surface events - just time moving along, really. I wanted to know what would happen to everybody, but getting there was a real chore. This is a good novel, but at the same time it is often boring, and structurally it's a bit of a mess.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mona

    Like an Intricate, Jeweled Faberge Egg Byatt's Magnum Opus This novel is A.S. Byatt's masterpiece. I think it's a much better book than her earlier and better known work, Possession. It's an ambitious work. It's also intricate, colorful, interconnected, and full of surprises, much like a Faberge egg (which, incidentally were produced during the same time frame as the book). The novel traces the childhoods and coming of age of a group of British young people before (late Victorian), during, and after Like an Intricate, Jeweled Faberge Egg Byatt's Magnum Opus This novel is A.S. Byatt's masterpiece. I think it's a much better book than her earlier and better known work, Possession. It's an ambitious work. It's also intricate, colorful, interconnected, and full of surprises, much like a Faberge egg (which, incidentally were produced during the same time frame as the book). The novel traces the childhoods and coming of age of a group of British young people before (late Victorian), during, and after World War I. Amazing Detail of Time and Place Byatt's detailed knowledge of the arts, politics, mores, and clothing of the time are just astonishing. Todefright A lot of the action takes place in and around Todefright, the rural cottage on the Kentish weald where one branch of the Wellwood family spends most of their time. The Todefright Wellwoods The Todefright Wellwoods are a big sprawling clan. The family's matriarch is Olive Wellwood, the beautiful and successful writer of children's fairy tales. Olive writes private fairy tales for each of her children. She is married to the perpetually philandering Humphrey, a banker and political writer. In fact, the Bohemian Todefright Wellwoods seem to be early practitioners of free love (as are many of their artsy neighbors). Most of the local married men (and many of the women) are constantly taking lovers. A naive and silly journalist who interviews Olive intones in her published piece on Olive "She lives in a perfect house for a writer at once so enchanting and so down to earth. I suggested to her that there was something witchy about the name Todefright and she immediately put me right. Todefright comes from the amphibian and an old Kentish word for ‘meadow.’ No death or spectres! And it is such a mellow pleasant house….Mrs. Wellwood has seven children, ranging from young men and women to schoolboys, all of whom are the privileged first listeners and readers for Mrs. Wellwood’s spellbinding tales!” While we are assured that the name is benign (supposedly derived from "toad" and "meadow"), in one of many ironic touches it turns out that in German the word "todefright" means "fear of death". Some of the Wellwoods and their associates are members of the Fabian Society, an idealistic British socialist group. Ironically, while these people talk about helping the poor and working classes, their own homes are filled with creature comforts, expensive art work and clothing, etc. Anyway the Todefright Wellwoods consist of the following characters. There is Tom Wellwood, the beautiful golden haired boy who is Olive's darling. Olive's story for Tom is called "Tom Underground". Later in the book it becomes a play. Tom loves roaming the woods and hanging around the children's special tree house. He never seems to find his direction in life. Dorothy Wellwood, a serious girl, decides early in life to become a medical doctor at a time when few women did. Phyllis is pretty and not too bright. Hedda is fierce and angry and later becomes a suffragette. Hedda is also good at ferreting out some of Todefright's secrets. There are many things hidden at Todefright in spite of its superficial atmosphere of Bohemian freedom. There are also some younger children, including Florian and Harry. Violet, Olive's sister, manages the household. The Cain Family Another family the book follows are the Cains. Prosper Cain, a widower, is in charge of precious metals at the new Victoria and Albert Museum. He has two children. His son Julian is gay and later becomes an academic. His daughter, Florence, is fairly directionless (as are several of the young people). The London Wellwoods There are also the "London Wellwoods". This branch of the Wellwood family consists of Humphrey's brother, Basil, a wealthy banker and his German wife, Katharina. Their children are Charles ("Karl") Wellwood, who gets involved in leftist political activism; and Griselda, Dorothy's best friend. Benedict Fludd's Household Philip Warren, a working class boy who is determined to become a potter, is discovered hiding in the basement of the brand new Victoria and Albert museum. He's run away from home. Tom and his friend Julian Cain find Philip. They bring him to Todefright. Philip ends up apprenticed to local master potter Benedict Fludd. Fludd is a great artist, but he abuses and neglects his family. He is moody and irascible. His house is a shambles and there is little money available for food, etc. Benedict Fludd's household in Purchase includes the following people. There is his daughter Imogen Wellwood, who later in the novel turns out to be a talented silversmith. Fludd's other daughter is the pretty Pomona who wonders around in a daze most of the time. His wife, Seraphita, is similarly dazed and incompetent. Fludd's son, Geraint, turns out to have a good head for business and Basil Wellwood takes him under his wing. Also, Philip's sister, Elsie Warren, turns up at Fludd's place and becomes the housekeeper there. Elsie, one of the few working class characters, seems incompletely drawn compared to some of the others, but she is formidable. Other Characters There are many other characters, including Marian Oakeshott, the local (in Kent) school mistress; Herbert and Phoebe Methley--a sleazy local author and his adoring wife; Frank Mallet, the local pastor, etc. Thespians and Germans There are also some fascinating thespians. There is Augustus Steyning a local (in Kent) theater director. He has some German friends, the Stern family. Anselm Stern is a very talented German puppeteer, assisted by his sons Leon and Wolfgang. Precious Metals All Soldered Together Dame Byatt weaves all of these characters together in a pattern as beautiful and intricate as one of Philip's ceramic pieces. There are balls, Midsummer celebrations, skinny dipping, theater, dancing, writing, and pottery making. Friendships are forged and broken. People are in and out of affairs. There's lots of wandering around the seashore and the woods. There are marches and rallies and suffragette actions. The first three sections are entitled "Beginnings", "The Golden Age", and "The Silver Age". Then the last section "The Age of Lead" ushers in World War I, in which tragedy interrupts all of this opulence. Audio Reader Rosalyn Landor, not one of my favorite readers, does do a passably good job reading this long and complicated text.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kalliope

    Reading this novel made me think I was diving. Sinking deeper and deeper into its boundless pages, I would sometimes need to resurface, expand my lungs and get fresh air. For this is a very ambitious novel (view spoiler)[overambitious? (hide spoiler)] and we could not expect any less from A.S. Byatt. I now conceive of it as a compression of about three books. There is an exhaustive account of the social and cultural settings in Western Europe at the turn of the 19C up to the conclusion of WW1. The Reading this novel made me think I was diving. Sinking deeper and deeper into its boundless pages, I would sometimes need to resurface, expand my lungs and get fresh air. For this is a very ambitious novel (view spoiler)[overambitious? (hide spoiler)] and we could not expect any less from A.S. Byatt. I now conceive of it as a compression of about three books. There is an exhaustive account of the social and cultural settings in Western Europe at the turn of the 19C up to the conclusion of WW1. The momentous changes and turbulent succession of political, social and cultural events could make anyone giddy, and indeed when reading those sections I felt I was rereading The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914. But not entirely. Byatt concentrates mostly on England with a second focus on Germany and an almost passing interest in France and Italy. Paris makes a glorious entrance with its glorious 1900 Universal Exhibition but then it recedes. Our attention is directed to the Arts & Crafts movement in all its width, its institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the London School of Economics, and the various political groups involved such as the Fabians and the Suffragettes. Modernism is, however, left on the side wings. I also found a couple of details that betray a certain Anglo-centeredness. It also seems to be a covert and loose biography of E. Nesbit, but I will not expand on this since I know little about her and to what factual extent is Byatt presenting her to us. Certainly the difficulties of being a good mother attentive to her children while also being a good writer who supposedly understands the world of children and what fascinates children’s minds could have been the challenge that Nesbit had to face. And third, it is a historical novel with a fictional plot. I am a fan of this genre but I concede that it is very easy for historical novels to fall in the trap of presenting what I call ‘the gallery of the rich and famous’ – the pageant of prominent personalities of the times making an almost miraculous march through an invented plot. This usually disappoints me. And Byatt has certainly done this. There is a long list of celebrities: Rodin, Wilde, Wells, Jung, Barrie, Pallisy, Carpenter, etc. But, and this is where Byatt’s genius comes in, as the book incorporates also a study of the culture of the times and a disguised biography of someone who did hang around with the Fabians, William Morris and the rest, then the chances of those real figures mixing the fictional ones can be defended as sufficiently credible, even if somewhat contrived. But this novel is even more than three books. Its comprehensiveness and boundlessness are extended by the large number of characters, who even if grouped in clusters of related families, also provide opportunities for psychological analysis and character portrayal. Some more successful than others. And it dwells and elaborates several wider themes: sexuality with its limitations and transgressions – both of gender and of family ties with incest being one of the shadows that haunts the narrative; the role and nature of women, social order and anarchism; reality versus the imaginary; adulthood versus childhood; artistic creation whether with writers or a wide range of artists working on different mediums. Related to this latter theme, for me one of the more attractive imagery came in the exploration and contraposition of the potter versus the puppeteer. To read a writer focus on the different ways a creator can manipulate its characters: either shaping them out of clay (and Saramago’s The Cave came to mind) or pulling their strings felt as if the writer had transmutated. And indeed Byatt’s writing, so thorough in details, in descriptions, with all the particulars and specifics, whether these are components, or materials, or colours, or shapes, made the text as condensed as an excruciatingly studded objet d’art fabricated by the most obsessive of goldsmiths, possessed by a horror vacui who relishes again and again in endless minutiae and artifice. Exhaustive novel. But also exhausting. I need air.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Teresa

    Really 4.75 stars, but that’s only because it’s by the author of Possession. Without that perfect Possession, I’m sure I would feel this is a full-on 5. * It’s a novel rich with rewards for Byatt fans, including all that Byatt loves and that for which we love her. Immediately upon starting the second chapter, I was plunged into her The Virgin in the Garden. It was partly the prose, but also the characterization of the children of another brilliant, eccentric family that lives in the 'country'. As Really 4.75 stars, but that’s only because it’s by the author of Possession. Without that perfect Possession, I’m sure I would feel this is a full-on 5. * It’s a novel rich with rewards for Byatt fans, including all that Byatt loves and that for which we love her. Immediately upon starting the second chapter, I was plunged into her The Virgin in the Garden. It was partly the prose, but also the characterization of the children of another brilliant, eccentric family that lives in the 'country'. As does The Children’s Book, The Virgin in the Garden starts with a scene in a famous, though different, British art museum and continues with a Shakespearean play. The hints of incest that pervade The Children’s Book remind me of other of her works and that's just a scratch on the surface. There’s also what I brought to the novel that Byatt didn’t intend. The stories Olive writes in each of her children's books are exactly the way stories of role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons) spool out. As we learn more of Olive’s favorite child, Tom, I was reminded much later of the graphic novel series The Unwritten which deals with another grown child whose parent had used him as the basis of a character (think Christopher Robin, who is mentioned within these pages). During my slow-read of an E.M. Forster biography, I read of Forster's first meeting with the 70-year old Edward Carpenter just after reading of an encounter between a fictional character and Carpenter in this book. My recent read of Constance Fenimore Woolson's biography was brought to mind as the struggle of women for recognition as artists (and in other spheres) is a big part of this novel. Finally, just yesterday I saw the title of a Dickens/Frances Trollope lecture I’ll be attending in a couple of weeks: Morbidity in Fairyland—the perfect appellation for this book. Names are important, not just Olive changing the name of her character Lancelin (which invokes Lancelot, which invokes a painting Olive’s son muses upon), but also the children who choose to be called something different than the names they were given. In fairy tales, names are important too: Rumpelstiltskin is only one example. The book’s era encompasses a time when children’s literature was popular among adults and I wondered if seeing that in our time was an impetus for Byatt, firing her brilliant mind into several directions. There were a lot of things I wondered about, but mentioning any more of them would be to bring in too much of the ending. Immersed in the atmosphere, story and characters, I was captivated, happy to be back in one of Byatt's worlds. And though a few times I felt taken out of her world by the increasing amount of facts (granted those were times I was perhaps too tired to be reading at all), all the pieces are essential to providing a picture of the whole. As the down-to-earth daughter Dorothy says (and, yes, The Wizard of Oz is referred to once): “Not abstract. Concrete.”

  14. 5 out of 5

    BrokenTune

    Ok, this is not for me. 70 odd pages and no hint of a plot, just a lot of scene setting and Victorian historical information. I get that this is likely to be character or society study rather than a plot-driven novel, which is fair enough, but I'm not digging the writing. There is a lot of info-dumping, telling rather than showing, and circular writing: And again, a pre-teen / early teen questioning their "capability to love"? Not for me.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Fiona Robson

    This book irritated the life out of me and if I could give it less than one star, I would. It took AGES to finish because I hated every bit of it. I only persevered with it because it was on the "1001 Books you Need to Read Before you Die" list, otherwise, it might have gone into the recycling bin. The writing style was intensely irritating and obviously written by a woman with bizarrely named individualys interracting randomly with way too much descriptive narrative. I would have loved to have This book irritated the life out of me and if I could give it less than one star, I would. It took AGES to finish because I hated every bit of it. I only persevered with it because it was on the "1001 Books you Need to Read Before you Die" list, otherwise, it might have gone into the recycling bin. The writing style was intensely irritating and obviously written by a woman with bizarrely named individualys interracting randomly with way too much descriptive narrative. I would have loved to have yelled at the author "FOR GOD'S SAKE GET ON WITH IT"!!! It wasn't the type of story I assumed it would be when I began reading it, and instead was a group of well-meaning upper class people having various meetings about people's rights. I tried to be more tolerant by rationalising that if these well-meaning posh people had not had these meetings, I would not be enjoying the freedoms I do today ... but that tolerance lapsed once Byatt lapsed into ever more descriptive twaddle. Felt VERY depressed when I noticed that she has another book on the list. I have absolutely no idea why. I'm sure my life would be more complete without the angst of having to endure another one of her energy sapping novels.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Proustitute (on hiatus)

    The Children’s Book is an epic door-stopper of a novel, spanning 1895 through the First World War. Byatt centers on the Wellwood family’s two branches—one capitalist, one Bohemian—and their intertwining and overlapping histories over 20-odd years. Focusing particularly on artistic, aesthetic, social, cultural, and political movements brewing during this pivotal time period, Byatt follows about twelve young children (and numerous tangential characters, both British and German) as their respective The Children’s Book is an epic door-stopper of a novel, spanning 1895 through the First World War. Byatt centers on the Wellwood family’s two branches—one capitalist, one Bohemian—and their intertwining and overlapping histories over 20-odd years. Focusing particularly on artistic, aesthetic, social, cultural, and political movements brewing during this pivotal time period, Byatt follows about twelve young children (and numerous tangential characters, both British and German) as their respective futures are shaped by these sea changes. The long passages about artistic creation—be it story-writing, modernizing fairy tales, puppetry, pottery, theatre—are reminiscent of Proust at times, and emphasize how each individual is shaped by and also in turn shapes the world around him or her. And Byatt’s canvas is like Eliot’s in Middlemarch, with the English countryside very much the backbone of the story: its timelessness, its rhythms, its ominous reminder that it will always outlive us. 

 This is a world and these are characters to get lost in; I’m still suffering from a separation of these individuals I feel I’ve come to know so well over the month-or-so it’s taken me to finish the novel. Every aspect of human life is found in these pages, and any reader with an interest in art, cultural history, and the sociopolitical backdrop of the historical shifts in the early years of the twentieth century: these characters are part of history, they are shaped by it, and, in the end, they are surpassed by it. 
 Truly an outstanding accomplishment.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    A great portrayal of growing up in England in that dynamic period between the end of the Victorian period to World War 1. The lives of a diverse set of children in three interlinked families are tracked as they either try to stay children or choose to advance toward participation in the arts, sexual explorations, and engaging with a variety of cultural movements. The prose and character development are very engaging. A major character and mother of several of the children is a writer of children A great portrayal of growing up in England in that dynamic period between the end of the Victorian period to World War 1. The lives of a diverse set of children in three interlinked families are tracked as they either try to stay children or choose to advance toward participation in the arts, sexual explorations, and engaging with a variety of cultural movements. The prose and character development are very engaging. A major character and mother of several of the children is a writer of children's fantasies in the vein of Peter Pan, who is married to a socialist journalist. Other key parental figures in this fascinating soup include a an eccentric, gifted potter and a Bavarian master of puppetry theater. The collaborative aspects of the arts and crafts movement is well covered. The back-to-nature movement, early welfare efforts for the poor, women's suffrage, anarchism, the beginnings of more acceptance of homosexuality and out-of-wedlock childbirth, and progressive crumbling of the class system and imperialism are all explored in this broad canvas of a novel. Some of the children make it through these transformations to a promising adulthood, but suicide and the war take a heartbreaking toll on others. Very satisfying if you can handle a lot of characters and a 700 page journey.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Zanna

    A densely woven account of connected families growing and changing over the late Victorian period up until the end of WWI. Byatt centres her narrative on the lives of the children, following their development and emotional perspectives. The book is openly aestheticising at the expense of pure realism, aiming for the elegant, stylised naturalism of art nouveau that supplies so much of the historical detail. I deeply enjoyed the tale and the telling, particularly Philip's story, which resists high A densely woven account of connected families growing and changing over the late Victorian period up until the end of WWI. Byatt centres her narrative on the lives of the children, following their development and emotional perspectives. The book is openly aestheticising at the expense of pure realism, aiming for the elegant, stylised naturalism of art nouveau that supplies so much of the historical detail. I deeply enjoyed the tale and the telling, particularly Philip's story, which resists high drama apart from the uncomfortable child abuse subplot. Elsie, the working class girl, is a challenge for Byatt, an unusual character whose story feels underwritten, but at least she defies stereotypes & romanticisation by being frankly interested in sex and smart clothes. The suffrage movement and the war receive intelligent attention. The most satisfying sections are about Anselm Stern, the genius puppeteer, and his sons. Artistry is the theme with which Byatt deals most effectively, illuminating the reality of hard, prolonged work of creation by personalities so well drawn they feel like friends. Byatt has a way of appreciatively writing about clothes which I love and find inspiring: she imbues them with sensual pleasure, artfulness and delight, and always uses them to create ambiance and develop character.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    In conclusion, this is how books of historical fiction should be written. History is interwoven into the story and made fascinating. There is so very much history in this book, so if that makes you leery, choose another book. As stated below you follow a few families from 1895 through the First World War; the setting is primarily Victorian and Edwardian England and then the war years with excursions to Germany and Belgium and France. I adored the trip to Paris for the 1900 Exposition! Byatt, whe In conclusion, this is how books of historical fiction should be written. History is interwoven into the story and made fascinating. There is so very much history in this book, so if that makes you leery, choose another book. As stated below you follow a few families from 1895 through the First World War; the setting is primarily Victorian and Edwardian England and then the war years with excursions to Germany and Belgium and France. I adored the trip to Paris for the 1900 Exposition! Byatt, when she describes a place, a person, or an event you feel the ambiance of that event. You are there. You see the person. I will give only one example. At a wedding, the bride's visage "looked like the white wax of a candle, lit by a golden flame." Each character's behavior and appearance, the clothes they wear and the things they say feel genuine. You nod and think, yes, that is exactly what she would do, say, wear. I was enchanted by the clothes, the artistry, the sensuality expressed. Rosalyn Landor's narration of the audiobook further enhanced these characters. This is the best narration I have ever listened to. She captures perfectly the different classes of the English. She speaks French and German equally well. The book covers everything from literature, the classics and fairy tales, to Fabian socialism to the Arts and Craft Movement to puppetry to women's rights and of course politics. Sex too. All is covered with depth.....although sometimes there is simply too much to absorb! Some sections were too long and drawn out, and thus the book feels a little less than amazing. It is very, very good, even if you must hard-nose it through some chapters! Don't give up at the half-way point, when the story lags or when you get caught in a fairy tale. Let me repeat one more time, her characters, and there are many, breathe. This is important because you don't pick up this book to just learn; you pick it up for the story and to escape into the world Byatt has created for us. ********************** I have listened to 3/4 of this immensely long book.......and guess what? I really like it again! Why? The characters are marvelously drawn. They are real people. How has the author managed to draw over twenty people with such precision? It is not that one is brave and only does brave things; that would make the character flat, two dimensional. Do you know any two people who are the same? Of course not! Each of these marvelous characters feels real, each in their own special way. Each fumbles in a way that they would fumble in the real world. That is the best way I have of explaining these people - the parents, the children, the friends, tutors, artists and acquaintances. Perhaps Rosalyn Landor's narration helps to individualize each character. In dialogs, the dreamy girl, the educated scholar, the creative authoress, the working class servant, each and every one of them, respond in a tone that fits who they are. The author and the narrator are working together to create a splendid performance. Think if I had given up on the book! What a shame that would have been. *************************** I have listened to about half..... parts are very boring! Gaeta, who recommended the book to me, also described it as a "lumpy mattress". I agree. Parts are interesting, other parts are tedious and boring. When it is boring, as it is now, even Rosalyn Landor's excellent narration does not suffice. ************** ETA: a link explaining what Fabian socialism is: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/... and a link about the Arts and Craft Movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arts_and... If you read the book you will understand more thoroughly! **************** I realize now that it is not the Victorian style of writing, detailed and packed with information, that I object to; I like all the information packed into each sentence of this book! I have nothing against the writing style, if it is interesting as it IS in this book. My problem has been stuffy Victorian characters, ie those who care about saying the right words, wearing the right clothes and behaving and doing the "oh so proper" thing. It is these typical staid, proper Victorian people that irritate me, not the writing style! A.S. Byatt has so much to teach me! The characters in this book are NOT staid or proper or stuffy in the least!!!! I love these people. I have only read three chapters though. This book is jam packed full of information about Fabian socialism, which I knew nothing about, and about pottery and the English Arts and Craft Movement at the end of the 1800s, about the history of Midsummer festivals and theater and politics and children's literature and artists and the conditions of the poor working classes. The book follows the Fabian socialist Wellwood family from 1895 through the years of the First World War. The mother, Olive Wellwood, is loosely based on the children's author Edith Nesbit. I am thoroughly enjoying this! Of course there are characters representing the staid Victorians too, Basil Wellwood is one; they add contrast! Tons of kids, each with different personalities. The narration by Rosalyn Landor IS exceptional. The book is long and I have just begun. :0)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Talulah Mankiller

    Okay, there is really no nice way of saying this: The Children’s Book? Holy shit, you could use that thing as a motherfucking doorstop, and considering how long it takes to get through it? YOU PROBABLY WILL. The premise: it’s 1880s England, and this children’s author’s son finds a homeless boy who wants to grow up to be a potter, so he gets deposited with an overly-artistic child molesting artiste in the hope that the kid will A.) Nurture his talent or whatever; and B.) Get the artiste to start b Okay, there is really no nice way of saying this: The Children’s Book? Holy shit, you could use that thing as a motherfucking doorstop, and considering how long it takes to get through it? YOU PROBABLY WILL. The premise: it’s 1880s England, and this children’s author’s son finds a homeless boy who wants to grow up to be a potter, so he gets deposited with an overly-artistic child molesting artiste in the hope that the kid will A.) Nurture his talent or whatever; and B.) Get the artiste to start busting his ass and stop being all moody and shit. Also, there are 10,000 other characters with 10,000,000 other motivations that Byatt explores in excruciating detail. One creepy older guy impregnates not one, but TWO teenage girls, one guy’s maintaining about three separate families, all of whom live in the same 10-mile radius, one guy’s a German puppeteer who knocked up a main character during Carnivale: it’s a zoo, really. And I enjoy zoos, I do, even when Erika makes me stay there for umpteen hours while she sketches a smug Komodo dragon (true story), but…ugh. Lemme break some stuff down for y’all lit-fic writers out there. I know this is going to be hard to accept, but…we, your audience TOTALLY UNDERSTAND that the Victorian era was not the time of squeaky-clean innocence it advertised itself as. We also understand this about the 1950s, and the 1970s, and the present day. It does not shock me to read about a working class boy of the Victorian era masturbating; it does not even interest me, especially when you put two or three such scenes early in the novel, as Byatt did in The Children’s Book. Boys have been choking the chicken since they figured out they had chickens to choke–this is not news to anyone. Please stop lingering on it in loving and excruciating detail, cause really. No. The Children’s Book was entertaining, despite the adolescent bashing of the adolescent bishop, but…it felt overstuffed and a little directionless. Towards the end it gears up and becomes a WWI novel and Byatt kills off a bunch of characters and it’s sad, but probably not as sad as she intended it to be, because the book is so overpopulated that most of the people who die got less than a dozen pages of character development before the Germans shot them. Actually, there are several who never got any character development AT ALL; they were just mentioned in a paragraph and then ignored until it was their turn to die in the trenches. Sloppy, Byatt. Tres sloppy. Of course, at the end of the day? I don’t think I “got” whatever it is that Byatt wanted me to get. WWI was bad? I knew that. The Victorians were hypocrites, even the “reformist” ones? I knew that, too. I’m pretty sure I’m missing something, but I’m also pretty sure that I don’t care enough to force myself through those thousands of pages again. Recommended for: If you like a big, sweeping epic with perhaps no point, this is for you.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Unlike her earlier novel, Possession, which I loved, I found myself in an adversarial position with the author as I read. There is just too much. Of everything. Too many characters, too much historical exposition, too much digression to indulge the author's habit of inserting story-stopping pieces of one character's writing inside the actual story. This historical fiction novel covers the years 1895 to 1919 in Europe and Germany. At first you follow the story of a young boy as he is rescued from Unlike her earlier novel, Possession, which I loved, I found myself in an adversarial position with the author as I read. There is just too much. Of everything. Too many characters, too much historical exposition, too much digression to indulge the author's habit of inserting story-stopping pieces of one character's writing inside the actual story. This historical fiction novel covers the years 1895 to 1919 in Europe and Germany. At first you follow the story of a young boy as he is rescued from starvation and discovered to be a talented young artist. But then that story is dropped, only to be picked up occasionally later on in the book. The author does this numerous times - a character comes to the fore, only to be dropped and casually mentioned later. I think that's what frustrated me most - there is not a clear, definable story arc for any one character. The book sort of limps to the finish, where we find who has survived to the end of the first World War.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Felice

    "The Children's Book" is a thick, meaty, treasure trove of a novel. Every turn of a page involves the reader in ideas, plot, emotions, knowledge and sparkling writing. In blurb vernacular it's brilliant, a page turner, un-put-down-able, stunning, complex and my favorite--multi-layered. The book takes place in England between 1895 and 1919. It criss-crosses Europe following the family fortunes of the Wellwoods, the Cains and the Fludds and a host of vibrant subsidiary characters. Olive Wellwood is "The Children's Book" is a thick, meaty, treasure trove of a novel. Every turn of a page involves the reader in ideas, plot, emotions, knowledge and sparkling writing. In blurb vernacular it's brilliant, a page turner, un-put-down-able, stunning, complex and my favorite--multi-layered. The book takes place in England between 1895 and 1919. It criss-crosses Europe following the family fortunes of the Wellwoods, the Cains and the Fludds and a host of vibrant subsidiary characters. Olive Wellwood is the center of this world. She is a writer of fairy tales for children. Olive was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who after a marriage above her station restyled her herself into a flowing, forward thinking, magazine layout ready Mother of 6 whose Bohemian glamour oozes out seduction and a nurturing spirit. She rules her world without maintaining any intimacy with it. Every moment is literary fodder for Olive. She plumbs the lives of her children for her fairy stories. Olive and the other adults talk the talk of the Fabians, judge their intellectual superiority by their superficial associations with anarchists and performers and abuse their children in the name of art and free thinking all the while living in servant filled luxury or having the spinster sister schooling the children or waiting for the vicar and charity of others to clothe and feed their families. These Edwardian parents have left their familial responsibilities to others as they prattel on about the changing the world in a ceaseless effort to insure their self importance. There are leagues of characters here whose lives are constantly intersecting and changing the landscape. As the children mature secret paternity's, horrors and how the world really works are reveled to them. They flee from the jails of their parents into the horror beyond measure of WWI. Although "The Children's Book" is a dark story overall, there is a feeling at the close of the novel when some of the surviving characters are mourning all that has been lost that here now is a substantial and committed group ready to try and remake their futures. Throughout the book Byatt has wedged in as much historical information as the story will hold. There is an explanation of everything from the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum to the preenings of the British and German monarchies to how to get a medical degree in 1904. This isn't the usual historical fiction nod to the price of nails in 1675 or a description of the style of dress in 1851 in order to quickly set time and place. The knowledge that Byatt spreads forth from beginning to end in this novel establishes the mindsets of the characters, the social background of their choices and the realities of the plot line. It is all completely integrated into the story and it is as much responsible for the success of the novel as the fictional attributes are. "The Children's Book" is an outstanding novel of ideas and people. I honestly adored each and every page of it. This is a book that all aspiring writers should read so that they will know what they are aspiring to create. When I finished reading this book I was full.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt is a little like opening a long-abandoned toy cupboard and finding childhood thoughts and feelings inside, tattered and worn and well-remembered, rather than the playthings one might have expected. We recognize Byatt as masterful even as she begins, for in the first chapter one feels the power of her rich imagination: a young runaway is found sketching designs from originals deep within the bowels of an art museum during turn-of-the-19th-century London. The The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt is a little like opening a long-abandoned toy cupboard and finding childhood thoughts and feelings inside, tattered and worn and well-remembered, rather than the playthings one might have expected. We recognize Byatt as masterful even as she begins, for in the first chapter one feels the power of her rich imagination: a young runaway is found sketching designs from originals deep within the bowels of an art museum during turn-of-the-19th-century London. The scurry of the 21st century is nowhere apparent as the author slowly unfolds a complicated set, and peoples it with many characters. This is a book one must slow down to appreciate. Byatt might liken her novel to the work of a potter--she writes that the air inside a pot is part of the experience of the pot, and the form and glaze on a pot cannot alone capture the pot's essence. Perhaps the thoughts and feelings that a book inspires is what makes a novel art more than simply words alone. Her work is like a jeweler's art--intricate and complicated and filled with symbolism. A novel is like a dramatist's set, where the inclusion of the smallest detail focuses our attention, registers its importance, and sends us thinking in a certain direction. I had a favorite character, Philip, and at first waited impatiently for him to show again, and when he did, I wanted him to stay. A good book could have been written about just him, the way he thought, his art, and how he made his way in the world. One could have said that of any of the many characters in the book, young and old. Byatt's skill was in revealing believable passions, scalding faults, and the real terrors the world holds for our fragile hopes. We see early 20th century England and its inhabitants in the midst of massive social and political change and realize the power and limitations of human intervention. When we close the book we feel closer in many ways to these paper people than to today's world hurtling past us too fast to comprehend.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Emily O

    The first thing I have to tell you is that this is not an easy review to write. How does one review an 675 page book in just a few paragraphs? But then how does an author manage to fit the whole world into just 675 pages? I honestly don't know, but if A.S. Byatt can do the latter, I can definitely attempt the former, though I fear I may ramble a bit. This is usually the part of the review where I'd tell you what The Children's Book is about. the summary GoodReads gives you up at the top of the pa The first thing I have to tell you is that this is not an easy review to write. How does one review an 675 page book in just a few paragraphs? But then how does an author manage to fit the whole world into just 675 pages? I honestly don't know, but if A.S. Byatt can do the latter, I can definitely attempt the former, though I fear I may ramble a bit. This is usually the part of the review where I'd tell you what The Children's Book is about. the summary GoodReads gives you up at the top of the page is interesting, but it doesn't really tell you what the book is about. This book is not one of those books where there is a terrible secret that, when found out, changes everyone's lives forever. No, this book is much more complex, much more real, than that. What is this book about? - It is about a family. It is about what family means, what motherhood means, what brother and sister and husband and wife mean, and what those relationships require from you. - It is about politics, from banking systems to anarchy to socialism, and how they affect the lives of the rich and the poor. - It is about art, about literature and pottery and painting and music and drama and all the different intersections of these things. It is about artistic movements, about aesthetic principles, about what it means to truly have talent. - It is about love, and all the different ways it is found and kept, the ways that it is honored or forgotten or missed along the way. - It is about scholarship, and what it means to be educated. It is about the fight between living in academia and living in the real world. It is about the desire to think real thoughts, and the consequences of that desire. - It is about the lives of women, and the choices that were often made between having a career and having a family. It is about what makes someone 'marriageable' and what makes them happy, and how those things often disagree. It is about the fight for suffrage and the multitude of different ways that women can find happiness. - It is about sex and sexual desire, it's many different forms and functions, love and loyalty, fun and exploration, mistakes and betrayal. - It is about war, and all of the stupid pointless waste that goes along with it. It is about the lack of glory found in fighting, about the mud and the gore and the pain of dying alone. - It is about perseverance, and about carrying on after pain and loss. It is about love in all its real and honest power. It is about steadiness, about sacrifice, about pain, and above all about the hope that comes afterward. - Most of all, this book is about life, in all its forms, with all its twists and turns, from the moment of birth until your final breath. The Children's Book is, in short, about everything. When I started this book, I was amazed at the sheer number of characters. I even made a chart to keep track of them. I drew family trees with lines connecting friends and lovers. By the time I got to the end, my tree was all but forgotten. I was taken wholly into the world that Byatt described. I knew these people, had known them for decades. I didn't want to give this book back to the library, for fear of losing them. When I finished this book, I considered turning right back to the beginning and reading it all over again. I know that, no matter how many times I read it, I will never have taken in everything this book has to offer. That is, to me, the sign of a great book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    Byatt is curiously prone to report the behavior of her characters, rather than just show them. If she weren't dealing with so much: fairy tales and folklore, the Arts and Crafts movement, the rise of Fabianism and social justice movements of all kinds; if not for all that it'd be a dud. And while I'm listing faults, there is a singular lack of joy. None of these people are ever shown being happy; all of their happy moments occur offstage. Sex, for example, is traumatic, not just, adequate. It ma Byatt is curiously prone to report the behavior of her characters, rather than just show them. If she weren't dealing with so much: fairy tales and folklore, the Arts and Crafts movement, the rise of Fabianism and social justice movements of all kinds; if not for all that it'd be a dud. And while I'm listing faults, there is a singular lack of joy. None of these people are ever shown being happy; all of their happy moments occur offstage. Sex, for example, is traumatic, not just, adequate. It makes for an overall depressing reading experience. And referring to "Charles/Karl" is just annoying, without every giving us a sense of who calls him by which name. Those are my complaints. It is, nevertheless, a marvelous book. While the large cast may keep us from seeing anyone's high moments, it does enable us to see what life was like at the time for a broad array of people. Byatt is more interested in social and political activism, so the cast is broader in political views than in class: this is not Downton Abbey with half the time spent upstairs and half the time spent down. I'm glad I read it, and I think Byatt's synthesis of culture in an historical context is awesome. But the unrelenting misery of all the characters means this is a deeply unhappy book even before you get to the war. Library copy.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I was lucky enough to be in Toronto and so was able to pick this up before its U.S. release (apparently we don't deserve it until the fall). I thought it would be a second Possession, but it's not, which is good. In some ways, Byatt's style in this book seems closer to the style of her sister, Drabble, a hands off approach which makes it a little harder (or takes longer) to come to terms or grips with characters. There are even some characters we never come to grips with (interesting considering I was lucky enough to be in Toronto and so was able to pick this up before its U.S. release (apparently we don't deserve it until the fall). I thought it would be a second Possession, but it's not, which is good. In some ways, Byatt's style in this book seems closer to the style of her sister, Drabble, a hands off approach which makes it a little harder (or takes longer) to come to terms or grips with characters. There are even some characters we never come to grips with (interesting considering the closing chapters of the novel). But eventually, the central characters come to the fore, and they comply the story onward and upward. The book makes you think, think about what it is saying or commenting on which seems to be life and the effect that people have on it, their own and the lives of others. There is much about art, life, and, of course, fairy tales. But there is so much more to the book than that. I finished the book a few days ago, and I am still trying to figure out my exact response to it. This, I think, is what makes it a good read because you are thinking, and because Byatt doesn't spell everything out. The reader is allowed to take what she/he wants from it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    T.D. Whittle

    I have come to realise lately that somewhat flawed masterpieces are my favourite works of art. This may be due to my inherent distrust of perfection, yet it also reminds me of the Herrick poem in which 'a sweet disorder in the dress' delights the lover who looks upon it, and enraptures his senses more than perfection ever could. Recently, Tender Is The Night captivated me in just this way: Its imperfections somehow amplified its overall wondrous impact. The Children's Book, it's true, has some o I have come to realise lately that somewhat flawed masterpieces are my favourite works of art. This may be due to my inherent distrust of perfection, yet it also reminds me of the Herrick poem in which 'a sweet disorder in the dress' delights the lover who looks upon it, and enraptures his senses more than perfection ever could. Recently, Tender Is The Night captivated me in just this way: Its imperfections somehow amplified its overall wondrous impact. The Children's Book, it's true, has some obvious cracks in its shimmering glaze. Perhaps knowing this herself, Byatt has inserted a reference to Henry James in her character Hedda Wellwood's mind towards the end of the novel: 'She would take Olive's stone with the hole and throw it at the golden bowl' (p. 570). Nothing in this family, or in the world, would be left perfectly intact by the end. Perhaps the novel, in a way, had to be cracked, too? It starts off with perfect form and function and beauty and only becomes rackety and hobbled as its characters lurch through the global and domestic horrors of WWI. Nevertheless, this book is a kind of perfection: a sprawling, enthralling, bewitching work of art. I'll add the Herrick poem here at the end, because why not? It's gorgeous. English Poetry I: From Chaucer to Gray. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. 211. A Sweet Disorder Robert Herrick (1591–1674) A SWEET disorder in the dress Kindles in clothes a wantonness:— A lawn about the shoulders thrown Into a fine distractión,— An erring lace, which here and there 5 Enthrals the crimson stomacher,— A cuff neglectful, and thereby Ribbands to flow confusedly,— A winning wave, deserving note, In the tempestuous petticoat,— 10 A careless shoe-string, in whose tie I see a wild civility,— Do more bewitch me, than when art Is too precise in every part.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)

    Well, A.S. Byatt has done it yet again. She has written a novel, in The Children's Book, that rivals her earlier Booker award winner, Possession. The Children's Book made the shortlist for the 2009 Booker award, and I certainly can understand why. This is the sweeping saga of a cast of characters from several families, and follows them through the late-Victorian period, through the Edwardian, and through the horrors of the First World War. In Possession, Byatt leads her reader through the world o Well, A.S. Byatt has done it yet again. She has written a novel, in The Children's Book, that rivals her earlier Booker award winner, Possession. The Children's Book made the shortlist for the 2009 Booker award, and I certainly can understand why. This is the sweeping saga of a cast of characters from several families, and follows them through the late-Victorian period, through the Edwardian, and through the horrors of the First World War. In Possession, Byatt leads her reader through the world of Victorian poetry, folk tales and mythology, academic research, competition, and the complexities of romance. Similarly, in The Children's Book the reader is swept up into the world of folk tales, mythology, children's stories, pottery making, puppetry; all of which revolve around the lives and loves of the book's main characters. There are literary nods to the Grimm Brothers, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Rossettis and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the arts and crafts movement, and so forth. This world, though while dreamy and imaginative, borders on the macabre at times; almost as though it were, in fact, something out of the Grimm Brothers. Allegories abound in the pottery-making, the porcelain glazes, the dance of the marionettes and hand puppets, the writing of of the children's fairy tales - there are dark and light threads that follow all of the main protagonists through the course of the novel. The novel reflects, through the eyes of the Wellwoods and Fludds, the tremendous political and social changes that occurred in Britain and Europe at the close of the Victorian Era and into the early years of the 20th Century culminating with the loss of nearly an entire generation in the trenches on the battlefields in Europe. The novel is relentless, like a river, it pulls the reader along; following the currents and flow of each of the children as they move from their fairy-tale childhoods into the colder, sobering realities of becoming adults and parents themselves. Once started, I simply could not put this book down; and I know that I will read this again and again. This is another masterpiece from the pen of one of our greatest living authors. Bravo, Ms. Byatt, Bravo!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Subashini

    I loved Possession and foolishly expected another Possession. This is not that. I'm in awe of the sheer scope and ambition of this book that covers a particular time in British history before the First World War. Fabianism, the Arts and Crafts movement, socialism, women's suffrage, the vibrance of chilren's literature at this point in time (Olive Wellwood is somewhat based on E. Nesbit)—all of this was fascinating. But there was too much going on and so much of the narrative had to be divided up I loved Possession and foolishly expected another Possession. This is not that. I'm in awe of the sheer scope and ambition of this book that covers a particular time in British history before the First World War. Fabianism, the Arts and Crafts movement, socialism, women's suffrage, the vibrance of chilren's literature at this point in time (Olive Wellwood is somewhat based on E. Nesbit)—all of this was fascinating. But there was too much going on and so much of the narrative had to be divided up between so many characters; it felt crowded and I couldn't find a way in to the book to feel much about any of them. Generally, a book works for me when I feel like I can find myself into it in some way, when the book seems willing to make room for the reader. I wanted to feel that with this book but it didn't happen. I felt like I was standing on the outside, watching the characters be moved around on the stage of history. And in a way, these characters felt ill-used, especially the children. I wonder if this was Byatt's point, to show how artistic, politically-active and aware parents nevertheless have terrible praxis on the homefront; these kids were neglected, abused, ignored. And "free love" proved to be just another way to remind women of their place, without any form of bodily/reproductive autonomy. But if those were the things the book wanted the reader to think about, it was lost amidst the swirls of detail. Characters marched in and out, and just went I wanted to stay with some of them, the narrative shifted to another set of characters. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a structural flaw, but in a book ripe with detail, the history and the art and the politics came alive, but the characters remained strangely inert and untouched by these forces.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Isabelle

    I am an A.S. Byatt fan, have been for a very long time... As usual, the book is full of knowledge on a period of English History I love, the late Victorian/Edwardian transition. There is so much history, art, music, literature, politics underlying the story of a pretty wide group of people, related by blood, love, common interests and the pursuit of fulfillment. The novel has been described as sweeping, and maybe just this once, Byatt has written an overly sweeping book that spins so much time th I am an A.S. Byatt fan, have been for a very long time... As usual, the book is full of knowledge on a period of English History I love, the late Victorian/Edwardian transition. There is so much history, art, music, literature, politics underlying the story of a pretty wide group of people, related by blood, love, common interests and the pursuit of fulfillment. The novel has been described as sweeping, and maybe just this once, Byatt has written an overly sweeping book that spins so much time that interruptions had to be made in the flow of narration in order to catch up the reader on social and political changes in the British landscape. While very instructive and surely needed, those historical summaries were at times too long, and towards the end of the novel too frequent, which made the ending seem rushed while the rest of the novel sometimes crept at a pace too slow to be called leisurely. That being said, there is so much creativity and richness of imagination that it is still a book well worth reading.

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