The Children's Book

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Overview

From the Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author of Possession: a deeply affecting story of a singular family.
 
When children’s book author Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of a museum, 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 ...

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The Children's Book

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Overview

From the Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author of Possession: a deeply affecting story of a singular family.
 
When children’s book author Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of a museum, 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. The Wellwoods’ personal struggles and hidden desires unravel against a breathtaking backdrop of the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, as the Edwardian period dissolves into World War I and Europe’s golden era comes to an end.
 

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Editorial Reviews

Keith Donohue
Bristling with life and invention, it is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer…more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail…The Children's Book holds a mirror to the new middle class during an era of growing appreciation for children and greater sexual freedom for women and for the love that dares not speak its name. That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Byatt's overstuffed latest wanders from Victorian 1895 through the end of WWI, alighting on subjects as diverse as puppetry, socialism, women's suffrage and the Boer War, and suffers from an unaccountably large cast. The narrative centers on two deeply troubled families of the British artistic intelligentsia: the Fludds and the Wellwoods. Olive Wellwood, the matriarch, is an author of children's books, and their darkness hints at hidden family miseries. The Fludds' secrets are never completely exposed, but the suicidal fits of the father, a celebrated potter, and the disengaged sadness of the mother and children add up to a chilling family history. Byatt's interest in these artists lies with the pain their work indirectly causes their loved ones and the darkness their creations conceal and reveal. The other strongest thread in the story is sex; though the characters' social consciences tend toward the progressive, each of the characters' liaisons are damaging, turning high-minded talk into sinister predation. The novel's moments of magic and humanity, malignant as they may be, are too often interrupted by information dumps that show off Byatt's extensive research. Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel. (Oct.)

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Library Journal
A girl places some diminutive folk she's discovered into her doll house, then is imprisoned by a giant child herself. A prince discovers that he alone has no shadow. No, these aren't plot points in this masterly new work by the author of Possession but children's stories written by one of its protagonists, Olive Wellwood. There are, or course, actual children in the book—Olive's, with blustery banker-turned-crusader husband Humphrey; the Wellwood cousins; Julian, son of a keeper at the South Kensington Museum; Philip, the wayward boy discovered living surreptitiously in the museum, whom Olive brings home to her country estate; the family of brilliant but selfish master potter Benedict Fludd, who takes in the talented Philip as an unpaid apprentice; and more. Like the children in Olive's stories, these children have their notions quietly disabused; one small instant—say, a parent's overheard comment—and life is changed forever. It's the late 1800s, with new ideas in the air—and it's all rushing toward World War I. VERDICT Pitch perfect, stately, told with breathtakingly matter-of-fact acuteness, this is another winner for Byatt. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/09.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) encompasses the paradigm shift from Victorian to modern England in a sweeping tale of four families. The deeper subject, however, is the complex, not always benign bond that attaches children to adults. As the novel opens in 1895, Olive Wellwood seems the model New Woman: popular author of books that reinvent fairy tales for contemporary children, tolerant wife to Fabian Society stalwart Humphry, devoted mother pregnant with her seventh baby. She takes in Philip Warren, a working-class boy who longs to make art, and connects him with Benedict Fludd, a master potter whose family belongs to the Wellwoods' progressive, artistic circle. As the long, dense narrative unfolds, we see the dark side of these idealists' lives. Three of the children Olive is raising are not hers with Humphry; in another household, magnificent works of art reveal repellent acts of incest. The gothic sexual interconnections recall Bloomsbury, and Olive is clearly a gloss on E. Nesbit, but this is no mere roman a clef. Byatt's concern is the vast area where utopian visions collide with human nature. Her adult subjects, she writes, "saw, in a way that earlier generations had not, that children were people, with identities and desires and intelligences . . . But they saw this, so many of them, out of a desire of their own for perpetual childhood." World War I forces everyone to grow up. Only one son of this socialist set becomes a conscientious objector; the others serve and most of them die. The pace, positively stately in the novel's first half, speeds up and becomes unduly hasty in the final section. But Byatt has painted her large cast of characters so richly that we care aboutall of them even when their fates are summarized in a sentence. In the last chapter, the variously battered survivors reunite and dream once more: "They could make magical plays for a new generation of children."Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent in the author's vintage manner. First printing of 75,000
From The Critics
“Sweeping . . . At the center of this epic are the Wellwoods and their many offspring. Olive, the matriarch, is the author of children’s books, vivid tales of fairies and demons, little people and spirits. . . . Along with other families, they weave in and out of one another’s lives, building an edifice of domestic tranquility that increasingly becomes a house of cards. . . . Byatt rewards [the reader] by serving a literary feast, telling the story not only of these characters but of their world. She sprinkles in cameos by major figures of this era [and] sets elaborate stages for her characters in historical events . . . And she creates an alternate universe, the frightening fantasy world from which Olive draws as she writes of children who are lured away from their parents to live with magical beings, or who must descend into the depths of hidden worlds to save themselves. In the fictional world of these stories and the real world of the Wellwoods, deceptions shape young lives that grow to adulthood in a world on fire. Byatt fills a huge canvas with the political and social changes that swept the world in those years, and the devastation of war that swept its families. She elicits great compassion for the individual beings caught in that tableau. It’s not a tale you’ll soon forget.”
 —Susan Kelly, USA Today 

“Engaging and rewarding . . . Spanning the two and a half decades before the First World War, [The Children’s Book] centers on the Wellwood family, led by a banker with radical inclinations and his wife, the author of best-selling fairy tales. At their country estate, they preside over a motley brood of children and host midsummer parties for fellow-Fabians, exiled Russian anarchists, and German puppeteers. But the idyll contains dark secrets, as a potter whom the family takes in for a time discovers. Byatt is concerned with the complex, often sinister relationship between parent and child, which she explores through various works of art, using them to refract and illuminate the larger narrative.”
 —The New Yorker
 
“Rich, expansive . . . a portrait of a time of imminent change—the years [in England] when the Victorian golden age depreciated into Edwardian silver and then, with World War I, into an ‘age of lead.’ The novel’s early sections take us to the country home of the Wellwoods, who welcome a lost youth into their midst. . . . These scenes contain everything any reader could ever dream of: a romantic country house; neighboring woods containing treehouses and other surprises; garden parties; puppet shows; leisurely intellectual discussions—all meticulously imagined by one of our very best contemporary writers. . . . Byatt captures the modern world’s uneasy crawl from its cocoon with a commanding section on the Paris Expo of 1900 . . .[Byatt’s] observation of the minutiae of moments in her characters’ lives is intense. . . . If she hadn’t been a writer, Byatt should have been a naturalist or a painter. At times she captures the natural world with the precision and neutrality of Constable . . . at others, you get the feeling details have been assembled with the cunning of Poussin. . . . ‘Cunning’ also applies to the novel’s stories within stories. . . . Byatt is a spinner of multiple tales, adding gorgeous layers and dimensions to this fictional world. Splendid in themselves, these stories comment on the novel at large. [One of these stories] says the most, I think, about what Byatt achieves in The Children’s Book. Whom does this title refer to? Olive’s story ‘The People in the House in the House’ is a sly, irony-steeped tale of a little girl who captures fairies and imprisons them in her dollhouse, only to be captured herself and imprisoned by a giant child. In watching Byatt’s characters, especially parents who insist on clear paths for their young though their own lives are anything but clear, the simple message of that story—that no one is ever in total control—shows The Children’s Book is a title that applies to everyone.”
 —Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Majestic . . . Dazzling . . . Wonderful . . . A fascinating tour d’horizon of a society in flux . . . It has become commonplace when praising a writer’s craft to pose the question: How many other writers could do what he or she has done? But in the case of A. S. Byatt, she is so amazingly talented and so prodigiously and fearlessly imaginative, that the question really becomes more: Is there any other writer today who can pull off the kind of artistic feat that she can? . . . By [The Children’s Book’s] conclusion, the characters—and the enthralled readers—have hurtled through the new century’s tumultuous first two decades, including the devastation and carnage of World War I. And here at the novel’s end is where Byatt again demonstrates her audacity—and the artistry to match—by actually writing poems in the voice of one of the characters she has created, authentic poetry of the prewar years giving way to coruscating verse typical of the great war poets . . . What you see here, as you do throughout the novel, is the strength and fire of Byatt’s imagination. Whether she is summoning up the mud and blood of Flanders fields, the dissecting room at a fledgling medical school for women, the brutality of life at a school for privileged young boys—and countless other places, such are the protean splendors of this novel—her touch is sure. Children’s literature in that poem and the book’s very title stem from the protagonist Olive Wellwood, a celebrated author of fairy tales and such books for young people. And of course Byatt being Byatt, she treats us to some marvelous tales from Olive’s (and of course her own) pen. . . . Olive is a marvelously original creation, full-blooded and magnificently realized in these pages, no pale imitation of anyone else. . . . In its enormous range and depth, [The Children’s Book] resembles those great Victorian novels in which the author is clearly steeped. Her learning is matched by an imaginative capacity to transmogrify what she has studied into something truly felt. There is a great deal in this novel about enthusiasm and disillusion and about gusto for life tempered by loss. Readers will learn a lot from The Children’s Book, but despite its being the product of all that learning, it is never didactic. Such is the power of the book that they will feel all that is packed into it, because Byatt has succeeded in her own literary quest ‘to go back to, to retrieve, and to reinhabit’ an important part of our past.”
—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle 
 
“Fascinating . . . An exhilarating panorama . . . Passionate, intelligent . . . The Children’s Book will undoubtedly be compared most often with Possession because of the scale of the enterprise, the historical setting, and the deft intertwining of fabricated texts. . . . One of the significant pleasures of The Children’s Book is also what makes it hardest to summarize: The novel has no main character, no hero or heroine. Instead, Byatt follows four families and numerous minor characters from the summer of 1895 to the summer of 1919. . . . The result is a richly peopled narrative that encompasses an unusual breadth of artistic, intellectual, social, and political concerns . . . Byatt manages her large cast and many plots by using a magisterially omniscient point of view capable of giving us the broad facts of history and geography and also of creating considerable intimacy. [She is] a master builder, laying each brick of her tower with consummate skill. Here is a novel in which everything matters.”
—Margot Livesey, Boston Sunday Globe

"If you buried The Children's Book under a few inches of leafy much, it might begin to sprout—that's how alive it is, how potent. David Copperfield, Prospero, Jane Eyre, and others haunt this novel, poised on the cusp of the 20th century, in which a raggedy kiln worker's son crosses class boundaries to practice pottery; a lovely matriarch writes dark fairy tales; children waste away from toxic family secrets; and ambitious women strain against tradition. Byatt is a master storyteller, but even more spellbinding than this novel's descriptions of nature and the supernatural is its intensely personal narrative of the Great War, where dreams of justice and mercy die hard."
 —Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine 
 
"A complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction . . . The central character, a writer of children's books, lives with her prodigious family on a romantically meadowed and wooded piece of Kentish property. Of course, real life is more complicated and less child-friendly than the fairy tale she struggles to maintain, and, as in a fairy tale, the characters' true identities can be a surprise. A tangle of secondary families ranging over rich historical territory provides plenty of meaty story. But the magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes."
 —The Atlantic Monthly 
 
“Magnificent . . . Inspired . . . Starts as an idyll and ends in hell. It is like one of those vast canvases by Fragonard depicting figures in silk and lace playing lawn games, oblivious to the huge, menacing clouds looming behind them. [The Children’s Book] is an ensemble piece. Each character has a story, and while those stories may intersect from time to time, as characters’ stories must, each remains separate and distinct. To accommodate them, the novel takes on the quality of a mansion with many rooms and passageways, filled with echoes and passing shadows. As in Possession, Byatt doesn’t simply tell you that Olive is a writer; she provides masterful examples of her stories. Byatt herself has certainly never written better than she does here. The sentences sparkle. The Children’s Book seems at times a cautionary tale for us today. For every one of [Byatt’s characters], bright and well-read and well-intentioned as they are, is utterly unprepared for the cataclysm that befalls them. Like the Kaiser, they all believe the guns that began firing in August 1914 would grow silent by Christmas. The Children’s Book ends in May 1919.”
 —Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer 

“Majestic and immensely ambitious . . . At the heart of the novel is the large Wellwood family, vigorous, talented, and bohemian. Neither Humphry Wellwood nor his novelist wife Olive belongs to the traditional English upper class, but they have bought a roomy country house in Kent. There they throw high-spirited parties with fancy-dress and puppet shows, attended by intellectuals, experimental potters, and Russian anarchists. . . . Olive[’s] stories, accomplished pastiches of fin-de-siècle whimsy that recall the tangled illustrations of Arthur Rackham, form a background to the whole novel . . . We are told what almost all Byatt’s characters are thinking and feeling; she enters almost every head and turns on the lights to show us what is going on inside. She does this with masterly skill and literary tact. [The Children’s Book] is supported by five set-piece episodes, each described in luxuriant detail. These [include] the Great Paris Universal Exposition in 1900 [a set piece which] is a masterpiece in itself, [and] only one example of Byatt’s almost stupefying command of historical and material detail. There seems to be nothing she doesn’t know about . . . Her laconic, terrible accounts of what happens to [her characters in World War I] are unforgettable, more eloquent than any of the ‘trenches’ novels that cram the bookshops. [Byatt] knows what she is doing, in supplying these rich backgrounds of politics and culture to the enthusiasms and delusions of her characters. And none of these passages entirely deserts those characters. On the contrary, they give them room to breathe; the close-up tracking of their feelings would grow claustrophobic if it were not from time to time released into the broad context of their times. The young women, especially, struggle through personal calamities and sexual restrictions to find out who they are and what they can become. By the end of The Children’s Book, nostalgia gives way to a passion for the future, a fury for change. [But] soon will come the slaughter of the boy-children in France and Flanders, while their sisters and girl cousins dig shrapnel out of the survivors. And in pages written with an agonized economy of words, this monument of a novel comes to its end.”
—Neal Ascherson, The New York Review of Books 
 
"A rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act. . . . The progressive, prolific Wellwoods—prolific in both writing and childbearing, Olive and Humphry have a brood of seven—and their artsy friends and acolytes form the core of Byatt's novel, and they are an invigorating bunch. Fin de siècle England was bursting with new ideas and beliefs, and Byatt's characters are exuberant participants. What could be more delightful than a mother who writers personalized fairy tales for each of her kids? Except, of course, that fairy tales can be the darkest kind there are, and a life in the arts has psychic costs. Often it's the next generation that pays. . . . Byatt snatches the Wellwoods and their circle, who have been living in a kind of Midsummer Night's Dream—admittedly a delusional version, shot through with subplots involving abuse and incest—out of their fairy costumes and deposits them in the vermin-infested trenches and blood-soaked hospitals of World War I. In conveying the vicious indifference with which their lives are shattered, Byatt's penetrating, unsentimental style hits its mark. [The period] details are never less than fascinating." 
—Radhika Jones, Time 
 
"A kind of tragic fairy tale, and Byatt does fairy tales wonderfully. But she is ambivalent about [her characters'] preoccupation with them—and we would do well to understand why. Set in England between 1895 and 1919 and thickly embroidered with period detail, The Children's Book depicts an era that may seem foreign to Americans, but its obsession with childhood resonates with our own. We too treat fantasy, comic-book adaptations, and of course Harry Potter as if they were, like Peter Pan, really for adults. Olive's stories allow her to explore what she cannot say aloud. Our children's stories do the same for us; they give us the common framework to explore the sacred and profane that our culture denies, and they cleanly separate the world into good and evil. Still, there are dangers in a return to youth. We slay dragons instead of facing what really scares us at our peril, as Olive discovers. When the Great War began, productions of Peter Pan were staged with a line omitted: 'To die will be an awfully big adventure.'"
 —Louisa Thomas, Newsweek 
 
"Brilliant . . . multilayered . . . bristling with life and invention . . . A seductive book by an extraordinarily gifted writer. . . . Set primarily in the [English] countryside, the story also flings characters to London, Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps and the battlefields of Europe where real historical figures mix with invented characters including layabout students, socialists, potters, puppeteers, randy novelists and poets in the trenches of France. [As such] The Children's Book is a kind of anatomy of the age in which the young men and women of the Edwardian era were confronted by a rapidly changing society and the grim reality of the Great War. But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. The novel spirals out from the families and social circle of the young writer Olive Wellwood, a famous writer of children's books, in the golden age of fiction about children . . . In addition to her published work, she creates for each [of her children] a private story, bound in a special journal. Byatt describes several of these books, but she unlocks the one for Tom, Olive's son, with devastating effect. The story—about a boy who loses his shadow and must search for it underground—closely mirrors Tom's internal and psychological life.  When she mines her son's story for a new play, a darker take on the motifs of Peter Pan, her son becomes truly lost. . . . This story about the nature of art and commerce and the private influences on public performance is at the core of the book, but . . . secret passions electrify the stories of the other families, too. Olive and Humphrey's marriage is a series of private indiscretions [and] startling revelations. On the surface, Victorian and Edwardian England may have been obsessed with propriety, but as with every age, all-too-human desires lurk just underground . . . All [the] characters connect in a tangled web, often erotic and frequently just this side of madness. The Children's Book holds a mirror to the new middle class during an era of growing appreciation for children, greater sexual freedom for women, and for the love that dares not speak its name. That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy."
—Keith Donohue, The Washington Post 
 
"Rich with period detail and sublime storytelling. . . . Supremely fulfilling, busy, and wondrous. Jammed with a staggering amount of history, with characters and ideas that demand attention, Byatt's complex, ambitious work imparts wonder as it follows generations across decades. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize—and no wonder—The Children's Book is a mesmerizing exploration of, well, everything: families, secrets, love, innocence, corruption, art, the desire for knowledge, nature, politics, war, sex, power. Even puppetry. . . .The Wellwoods and their seven children form the story's central thread, but their friends and extended family prove equally instrumental. So many characters to keep track of—we're in Russian-novel territory here—and yet Byatt makes them all distinct. Olive writes fairy tales for children, [and] making up stories is where Byatt excels, too. Like Olive's disturbing tales, The Children's Book hints at dark motives and dangerous journeys, and follows [its] children through young adulthood, wreathing them in beguiling fairy tales, a shocking array of secrets. They discover passions, fall in love, plan futures or remain trapped by family dramas. [Byatt is] intrigued by intellectual quests and the life of the mind and how such things work against our weak, too-willing flesh. The characters of The Children's Book may be Victorians, but they spend a shocking amount of time in each other's beds. . . . 'It was magical,' Byatt writes of the Wellwoods' Midsummer celebration. 'Everyone agreed it was magical.' There is wonder everywhere, especially if you open this book."
—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald 
 
"A tour de force . . . Will not disappoint fans of her phenomenally successful Possession. In a dumbed-down world, what a pleasure it is to dive into the allusive, uncompromisingly erudite novels of A. S. Byatt. Byatt has inherited Iris Murdoch's mantle as England's pre-eminent novelist of ideas, but her books are richer and more satisfying than Murdoch's, and less inclined to preciosity and abstraction. Byatt might more profitably be compared with the great Victorians in whose work she has immersed herself. The Children's Book centers on the lives of two generations of artistic, bohemian families. Olive Wellwood, a writer of children's stories, and her journalist husband, Humphry, have created a magical realm at Todefright, their rural retreat, where they bring their seven children up . . . Narcissistic Olive [is] a woman whose fecundity and happy marriage are achieved at the expense of her sister; [her] single-minded attention to her writing ends up destroying the child she loves best. But Byatt is a multi-dimensional artist, and in Olive she has created a complex woman who is by no means unsympathetic. Olive is above all an artist, with the vagaries that the term implies, and narcissism goes with the territory. . . . The events of The Children's Book might be said to mirror the ways in which all parents, of every generation, deceive and betray their children . . . Olive's dilemma, the challenge (which she fails) of coping with the creative and destructive powers given to the artist, is clearly one with which her author is passionately concerned. In the end, The Children's Book brings to vivid life the often irreconcilable demands of being an artist and being a human being."
—Brooke Allen, The Wall Street Journal 

"A vivid and erudite portrait of an age, a family chronicle, a sweeping saga that dramatizes the interplay—and frequent collisions—between life and art, politics and personal life, fairy tales and reality, creativity and responsibility, Germany and England. It is a stunning achievement: a novel of ideas that crackles with passion, energy and emotive force. . . . Few writers are Byatt's equal in conveying the textured subjectivity of artists and writers, their ways of seeing, their almost compulsive urge to create. . . . Fragments [of fairy tales in the novel], which fascinate and delight, also repel . . . Creation and destruction walk hand in hand through the novel, so it is fitting that The Children's Book ends at the close of World War I, that colossal waste of a generation. Byatt's prose ranges from ecstatically lovely descriptions of works of art to brisk exposition of social movements; her characterizations are nuanced and moving. . . . I came to care about every one of the 20-odd children in the second generation [of characters], to the extent that I did not want The Children's Book to end . . . I still wanted more of this ambitious, compelling novel, certainly Byatt's best since the Booker–winning Possession: A Romance, and possibly her best ever."
 —Patricia Hagen, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Byatt has brought to life the Edwardian age . . . As lushly detailed as Possession . . . Fairy tales abound, parties of grandiose dimension are given, flirtations begin and end—and not just between and among the younger generation. That fact is the underside of the story. In the face of this ‘Edwardian Summer,’ a halcyon time, family secrets swirl around. Little by little they are unearthed: surprising, sad, painful. . . . Every stitch of this tapestry is connected to the whole, all coming to a head with the devastation of World War I, when all the young men went off to war and the world was forever changed.”
—Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times
 
“[A] masterpiece of a novel . . . Takes you across a lifetime of emotions. I began the book in the bathtub. My heart was light. I finished the book on a train, five stops past my destination, lost in some blasted urban hell, with tears streaming down my face. . . . Byatt’s novel—her best yet—is a meditation on the ways the seductive power to create and to be created by someone else can trap us. The Children’s Book lets us fully experience that lure, as beautiful sentences and elegant phrases lead us further and further in through a pleasurable series of portraits and scenes until the only way out is through.”
—Bethany Schneider, Newsday
 
"Byatt is an enthusiastic reader of Victorian novels, and in some ways she is a writer of them as well, or of updated versions. Her new novel, The Children's Book, has a Trollopean heft and sweep; it starts in 1895 and ends after World War I. Like most Byatt books, it's stuffed with information: about pottery, puppetry, Victorian child-rearing theories, trench warfare, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, the rise of Fabianism and women's suffrage. . . . The Children's Book is centered on Olive Wellwood, a famous writer of children's books, who lives with an extended family on a sort of Bohemian estate in Kent. The children run wild; the grownups are arty and sexually adventurous. Olive is loosely based on the writer E. Nesbit, and a great many real figures make walk-on appearances in the book, among them Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke, and Oscar Wilde on his last public outing before being imprisoned. The creepiest character, and also one of the most entertaining, is a novelist and free-love advocate named Herbert Methley, whom the reader first meets while he's sunbathing in the nude. Methley, Byatt said, is a cross between H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence: he has Wells's predatory sexual habits and Lawrence's way of spouting off about his love life. . . . In some ways The Children's Book is a study of grownups, and artists especially, behaving very badly . . . "
 —Charles McGrath, The New York Times 
 
"Intricately crafted, deeply satisfying . . . Sink comfortably into Byatt's gorgeously stuffed narrative. I haven't had as much pure fun with one of her novels since her Booker–winning Possession. The Edwardian age agrees with her every bit as much as did the Victorian. The Children's Book manages to be encompassing in scope and watch-maker precise in detail. . . . Byatt covers huge swaths of the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era right up through World War I, discoursing intelligently about everything from women's suffrage to the language of fairy tales and the art of puppetry. [She also] turns her skilled hand to Golden-Age-era children's literature and World War I trench poetry. . . . Fans of Possession, you've got yourself a new bedtime story."
—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor 

 
"Riveting . . . The novel begins and ends with the Wellwoods, a family of bohemians moving through the years and an ever-growing web of relationships and connections. Though the setup sounds like genteel Anglophile bait, the novel turns out to be something else entirely—an unsettling story as much Peter Greenaway as Merchant Ivory. . . . When we first meet beautiful Olive Wellwood in 1895, she is already the author of many successful children's books, as well as the mother of a constantly expanding brood. But eventually Olive begins cannibalizing the 'secret and private' tales [written] for each of her offspring . . . and she sets in motion the book's original sin; likewise, her kids will soon be tossed from a fantastic existence into a cruel world. Playing brilliantly with fairy tale tropes, Byatt fills The Children's Book with foundlings, locked chambers and kisses with more frogs than princes. But the novel is ultimately about the difference between willful innocence and bitter experience. While Olive and other 'adult' characters play around the edges of sexual freedom and socialist political action, their children plunge into a rapidly modernizing world—and thence into the gruesome trenches of WWI. As this complex novel builds toward its finale, it forgoes one of Olive's enchanted endings in favor of something closer to life."
—Elizabeth Isadora Gold, Time Out New York 
 
"A wonderful, engaging novel . . . Fine, rich, fully accomplished. The Children's Book opens as a Victorian novel should, with an orphan and runaway: Phillip, discovered living in the basement of London's Prince Albert Museum. . . . But as readers of her Possession and Angels & Insects know, Byatt's 'Victorian' novels focus on what's repressed and beneath the idyllic, regulated surface of Victorian society. Hers are the Victorian novels that couldn't have been written, or published, in that time. . . . This was the time of the Boer War and socialist idealism, of the growth of the Suffragette Movement, of Art Nouveau and the trial and disgrace of Oscar Wilde—a colorful, fascinating time [that] Byatt is deft in presenting."
—David Walton, Louisville Courier-Journal 
 
"For a novel so entrenched in the subject of fairy tales, The Children's Book is consumed by the kind of seriousness that, we sometimes forget, is an essential part of growing up. . . . Byatt's writing, with its captivating sense of language and narrative, continually evokes traditional 19th-century English storytelling. . . . The realities of growing up, of fleshing out one's place in the world, of realizing not only who one is but who one's parents really are—these are the themes at work in The Children's Book. A fascinating literary achievement."
—Zak M. Salih, Richmond Times-Dispatch 
 
"Stunning . . . Matching and arguably surpassing Possession in breadth and ambition [The Children's Book] is a magnificent Edwardian-era multi-family saga [that] portrays a world of artists and leftists at once seized by arrested development and enraptured by the political, social, and artistic advancements they are effecting. . . . Intricate."
—Kera Bolonik, Bookforum 
 
"Byatt returns to the 19th century with The Children's Book, which centers on English fairy-tale author Olive Wellwood. The novel traces the Wellwoods' fortunes—and reveals their secrets—as they navigate the tectonic cultural shift from Victorian to modern."
 —Time 
 
"[A] must-read for fall . . . Just as ambitious [as Possession], The Children's Book revolves around the life of an English children's book author and three families whose lives are intertwined with hers as Europe tumbles into World War I."
 —Tom Beer, Newsday

"Masterly . . . A girl places some diminutive folk she's discovered into her doll house, then is imprisoned by a giant. A prince discovers that he alone has no shadow. These aren't plot points in this new work by the author of Possession, but children's stories written by one of its protagonists, Olive Wellwood. There are, of course, actual children in the book—Olive's, with blustery banker husband Humphry; the Wellwood cousins; Julian, son of a keeper at the South Kensington Museum; Philip, the wayward boy discovered living surreptitiously in the museum, whom Olive brings home to her country estate; the family of brilliant but selfish master potter Benedict Fludd, who takes in the talented Philip as an unpaid apprentice. Like the children in Olive's stories, these children have their notions quietly disabused; one small instant—say, a parent's overheard comment—and life is changed forever. It's the late 1800s, with new ideas in the air—and it's all rushing toward World War I. Pitch perfect, stately, told with breathtakingly matter-of-fact acuteness, this is another winner for Byatt."           
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred)

"Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent . . . Byatt encompasses the paradigm shift from Victorian to modern England in a sweeping tale of four families. The deeper subject, however, is the complex, not always benign bond that attaches children to adults. As the novel opens in 1895, Olive Wellwood seems the model New Woman: popular author of books that reinvent fairy tales for contemporary children, tolerant wife to Fabian Society stalwart Humphry, devoted mother pregnant with her seventh baby. She takes in a working-class boy who longs to make art, and connects him with a master potter whose family belongs to the Wellwoods' progressive, artistic circle. As the narrative unfolds, we see the dark side of these idealists' lives. . . . The gothic sexual interconnections [among the characters] recall Bloomsbury, and Olive is clearly a gloss on E. Nesbit, but this is no mere roman à clef.  Byatt's concern is the vast area where utopian visions collide with human nature. . . . Her adult subjects, she writes, 'saw, in a way that earlier generations had not, that children were people, with identities and desires….but they saw this out of a desire of their own for perpetual childhood.' World War I forces everyone to grow up. Byatt has painted her large cast of characters so richly that we care about all of them. In the last chapter, the survivors reunite and dream once more: 'They could make magical plays for a new generation of children.'"
Kirkus Reviews

"Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Children's Book tells the tale of a Victorian-era children's book author who takes an artistic runaway into her London home. This act of charity, however, reveals a household that is coming apart at the seams. Byatt takes her characters into World War I, along the way showing how the world both inside and outside their home is disintegrating."           
New York Post

"Easily the best thing A. S. Byatt has written since her Booker-winning masterpiece, Possession . . . A panoramic cavalcade of a novel [and] a work that superlatively displays both enormous reach and tremendous grip."
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)

"Insistently readable . . . Brimming with intelligence and sensuality."
–Claire Allfree, Metro (UK) (Four stars)

"Devastating." –Helen Dunmore, The Times (London)

"Marvelous . . . [A] sweeping yet intricate account of three middle-class English families navigating the blind turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries. . . . Rapturously immediate and vivid. . . . Substantial and superb . . . Here is Byatt at her historical-novelist best."
–Geoff Pevere, Toronto Star

"Gripping and often deeply affecting . . . Magnificent . . . Lavish . . . A narrative tour de force."
–Pamela Norris, Literary Review

"The sort of high-concept intellectual fiction we'd expect from, well, A. S. Byatt. Possession: the next generation. . . . There is enormous personal sadness in Byatt's novel, which becomes a collective, historical sadness as the novel moves ineluctably towards 1914."
–Sophie Gee, Financial Times

"Brilliant . . . Clear-eyed . . . A staggeringly charged, slyly comic re-creation of the period between the end of the 19th century and the first world war."
–Alex Clark, The Guardian

"Intricately worked and sumptuously inlaid . . . The Children' s Book seethes and pulses with an entangled life, of the mind and the senses alike."
–Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

"An engrossing saga. . . . Byatt captures the innocence of childhood in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras before the onset of the First World War. It is a world of half-hidden secrets, set against a backdrop of social change. A rich historical stew."
–Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler

"This is [Byatt' s] Middlemarch." –Sam Leith, The Guardian

"The Children's Book has a richness of pictorial décor which reminds one of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence."
–John Sutherland, Evening Standard

"Beguiling . . . Intelligent, erudite and charming . . . This book made me thirsty: Whenever I put it down, it nagged me to pick it up again. . . . Monumental, pure, beautiful. . . . Byatt can still breathe magical life into historical fiction, giving her abiding interests new relevance with each work."
–J. C. Sutcliffe, The Globe and Mail

"Compelling . . . Fascinating . . . Clear-sighted and evocative . . . An intricate tale, energetically fashioned from sturdy strands of material, by an indefatigable storyteller . . . never less than the real thing."
–Patricia Craig, The Irish Times

"Dazzling . . . Byatt is an artist of exceptional moral enchantment." –Jane Shilling, The Daily Telegraph

"A seductive tale . . . Byatt favours sexual enlightenment and social promotion and political advance in all its forms."
–George Walden, New Statesman

"A consummate work of art . . . Through the fictional Olive Wellwood, Byatt conjures the period of Peter Pan and H. G. Wells, Fabianism and Wind in the Willows."
–Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

"Compulsively readable . . . Extraordinarily rich." –Caroline Moore, The Spectator

"Intellectually fizzing . . . Remarkable, peerless, and willfully and delightfully and unapologetically intellectual, the kind of writer who makes you marvel at what she manages to put on the page."
–Alan Taylor, The Herald (Glasgow)

"Brilliant . . . Insightful and illuminating . . . An eloquent testament to the dangerous power of both art and myth."
–Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement

"Byatt writes [about World War I] with a power equal to that of Erich Maria Remarque and Ford Madox Ford. . . . Like Possession, [The Children's Book] carries off the feat of being both a dazzling novel of ideas and an emotionally compelling page-turner, a historical work with a remarkably contemporary feel. One of our best writers has surpassed herself."
–Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette

From the Hardcover edition.

The Barnes & Noble Review
A. S. Byatt published her first novel in 1964 and, over the ensuing two and a half decades, produced a series of successors that were admired by critics but had little reach beyond intellectual circles. Yet when Possession, her literary romance and thriller, became a bestseller on its publication in 1990, the author evinced no surprise. Quite the contrary: this time, she said, she had written with a larger audience in mind. In tone and scope, the resulting novel proved a gripping and original blend of the Victorian and postmodern, serving up two love stories, some improbably sexy critical theory, and countless deft pastiches of Rossetti and Browning. "I knew people would like it," Byatt told The New York Times. "It's the only one I've written to be liked, and I did it partly to show off."

Nearly 20 years later, still mashing up genres, switching historical periods, and unfolding tales with supple and convincing omniscience, the author has continued to challenge and entertain her readers. She has ventured into fairy tales, suggesting that "they form, or until recently formed, the narrative grammar of our minds." She has excoriated grown-up readers of the Harry Potter books, claiming that J. K. Rowling's series "speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery." And she has questioned the practice of including real-life people in fiction, arguing that that using an actual person "as the single original in fiction" inhibits creativity by failing to leave room for "the necessary insertion of inventions."

By her own admission, Byatt peoples her books with composites. Types, she says, tend to recur. Olive Wellwood, the preening, selfish, and blinkered, if basically good-hearted, children's writer at the center of her latest novel, is one part D. H. Lawrence, one part E. Nesbit, two parts Alison Uttley, a dash of Rebecca West, and, of course, a great deal of the author's imagination, all steeped in the pot of her moralizing. Writers and other artists who steal too directly from other people for inspiration fare badly in The Children's Book, another brainy crowd-pleaser -- a vast Edwardian-era panorama so spellbinding it invaded my dreams, but also frustrated me, in the end, as characters' fates bent to Byatt's ethical agendas.

Our story begins in 1895 as Olive visits the (new) Victoria and Albert Museum, seeking ideas for a story. She charms the curator, Prosper Cain, while her eldest son (and favorite child), Tom, and Prosper's boy, Julian, spy on and then confront a lad who's sketching the museum's treasures. Having fled a miserable job working the kilns in a pottery, Philip Warren hasn't eaten a proper meal in weeks but spends his days drawing and his nights sleeping amid the artifacts stored in the museum's cold basement. Surveying his drawings, all are amazed by the level of his craft. As Philip devours tea and sandwiches, it is agreed that he must be whisked away to Todefright, the Wellwoods' rambling farmhouse estate, until they can decide what to do with him. Soon the Wellwoods throw a party, and one of the guests offers Philip his dream job. The boy becomes an apprentice to the brilliant but monstrous potter Benedict Fludd, a man given to intermittent "werewolf-changes" and "religious fits."

Life for the Wellwoods is darker and more complicated than it initially seems. With the help of her wellborn husband, Humphrey, Olive has escaped a life of terrible poverty and grief and constructed a new one that enables her to spend her time creating fantasy worlds. But it's Olive's writing income that supports their landed lifestyle, at least once Humphrey resigns from his banking job to turn his attentions to political activism (and womanizing) full-time. And unbeknownst to the Wellwood kids, not all are biological children of both Olive and Humphrey; some are the offspring only of one or the other, although all were born during the marriage. The brood dislikes Violet -- Olive's spinster sister and their round-the-clock babysitter -- even as several of the children begin to suspect that she may actually be their mother. This possibility particularly consumes Dorothy, a bright, matter-of-fact girl who yearns to be a doctor and doesn't get on with Olive. Stern and diligent, a perfect foil to Olive's whimsy, Dorothy emerges, like Jo in Little Women, as the tomboy heroine and moral center of the book, and her eventual quest to know the truth about her parentage is tremendously affecting.

Byatt handles her large and complex cast with ease as The Children's Book conjures up the Edwardian period, presenting its freedoms, strictures, and foibles in astonishing detail. This was a time, Byatt has said, when women were gaining freedoms, work conditions were improving, sex was discussed freely, and children still ran wild in woods and fields, their imaginations steeped in "literature and fairy stories and Peter Pan." But it was also an era that saw the rise of the smug do-gooder, of bohemians and Marxists and Fabian Society members whose efforts on behalf of the downtrodden were infused with a fundamental cluelessness and self-satisfaction. As one of the more striking examples of the type, The Children's Book depicts novelist and passionate women's rights advocate Herbert Methley, who beds and impregnates a host of women while seeking inspiration for his fiction (Mr. Woodhouse and the Wild Girl and other stories about lusty young females).

The book of the title consists of Olive's own magical stories -- private ones written for each of her children -- which form an enchanted, occasionally tedious, counterpart to the engaging central narrative. Byatt cautions against reading The Children's Book as an extension of her scathing takedown of Rowling; the book, she says, was not written in reaction to Harry Potter but explores the idea of fairy tales as "an alternative to 'realism,' something necessary to human beings." Yet Olive, if not exactly the kind of "childish adult" the author has decried, is stunted as a woman and a writer. She has a tendency when difficulties arise to lock herself away and live in her fantastical worlds. And increasingly, pressed for ideas, short on time, and needing to sell fiction to make ends meet, she plunders the notebooks that constitute her secret children's book. In particular, she gravitates toward Tom's tale; as her favorite child, he has always served as a kind of muse, and her emotional connection to his character is stronger than to the others. But Tom is a private lad, and a troubled one, and his mother's blithe use of a story that is so fundamentally personal is for him the ultimate betrayal.

While all of these events are skillfully orchestrated and entirely plausible, the culminating tragedy to which they eventually point feels imposed -- almost Calvinist in its predestined tenor -- rather than organic. Tom becomes, in effect, a casualty of Byatt's tyrannical omniscience. We can believe that he might do the terrible thing he does, but we haven't been granted enough access to his deepest feelings and motivations for his actions to resonate. Olive, meanwhile, is cast into such grief she may never recover -- or will this too be a casualty she just brushes off? It is clear that the author doesn't have much patience for Olive's anguish. "There would be no more stories, she thought, dramatically, uncertain whether this too was a story, or a full stop." As World War I flares up toward the end of the novel, the trend continues: those who are virtuous or talented tend to survive, while corrupt and dull characters generally die off.

Yet if Tom's and Olive's fates seem like punishments borne of didacticism, Benedict Fludd's demise rings true. Like Olive, but in a much more grotesque fashion, the potter uses his family to fuel his art. The gloom that permeates his household is palpable, and the listlessness of his wife and daughters -- "pallid silk moths," he calls them, disgustedly -- in the face of his rages, haunting. What befalls him is not merely a relief to just about everyone, but an inevitability.

A few years ago, in a passionate defense of George Eliot, Byatt responded to critics who accused the Middlemarch author of "writing from a god's eye view, as though she were omniscient." "I came to see that this is nonsense," she said. "If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work -- as a novelist." Byatt does her work as novelist wonderfully in much of The Children's Book, deploying omniscience to fashion a cohesive, evocative narrative strategy; yet at times her formidable intellect works to undermine the complexity of her creations with heavy-handed characterizations and sermonizing -- the kind readers might expect to find in the simpler moral confines of Hogwarts. --Maud Newton

Maud Newton's writing has appeared in numerous publications. Her blog is at maudnewton.com.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307473066
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/10/2010
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Pages: 896
  • Sales rank: 348,526
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author

A. S. Byatt
A. S. Byatt is the author of numerous novels, including the quartet The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman; The Biographer's Tale; and Possession, which was awarded the Booker Prize. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels & Insects; five collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and Little Black Book of Stories; and several works of nonfiction. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she lives in London.

Biography

A. S. Byatt, author of the Booker Prize-winning Possession, is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and critic. Her most recent fiction outside this tetralogy is The Biographer's Tale, a novel, and Elementals, a collection of short stories. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England; France
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 24, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Newnham College, Cambridge, 1957; graduate study at Bryn Mawr College and Somerville College

Read an Excerpt

Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third. It was June 19th, 1895. The Prince had died in 1861, and had seen only the beginnings of his ambitious project for a gathering of museums in which the British craftsmen could study the best examples of design. His portrait, modest and medalled,was done inmosaic in the tympanum of a decorative arch at one end of the narrowgallery which ran above the space of the South Court. The South Court was decorated with further mosaics, portraits of painters, sculptors, potters, the "Kensington Valhalla." The third boy was squatting beside one of a series of imposing glass cases displaying gold and silver treasures. Tom, the younger of the two looking down, thought of Snow White in her glass coffin. He thought also, looking up at Albert, that the vessels and spoons and caskets, gleaming in the liquid light under the glass, were like a resurrected kingly burial hoard. (Which, indeed, some of them were.) They could not see the other boy clearly, because he was on the far side of a case. He appeared to be sketching its contents.

Julian Cain was at home in the South Kensington Museum. His father, Major Prosper Cain, was Special Keeper of Precious Metals.
Julian was just fifteen, and a boarder at Marlowe School, but was home recovering from a nasty bout of jaundice. He was neither tall nor short, slightly built, with a sharp face and a sallow complexion, even without the jaundice. He wore his straight black hair parted in the centre, and was dressed in a school suit. Tom Wellwood, boyish in Norfolk jacket and breeches, was about two years younger, and looked younger than he was, with large dark eyes, a soft mouth and a smooth head of dark gold hair. The two had not met before. Tom's mother was visiting Julian's father, to ask for help with her research. She was a successful authoress of magical tales. Julian had been deputed to show Tom the treasures. He appeared to be more interested in showing him the squatting boy.

"I said I'd show you a mystery."

"I thought you meant one of the treasures."

"No, I meant him. There's something shifty about him. I've been keeping an eye on him. He's up to something."

Tom was not sure whether this was the sort of make-believe his own family practised, tracking complete strangers and inventing stories about them. He wasn't sure if Julian was, so to speak, playing at being responsible.

"What does he do?"

"He does the Indian rope trick. He disappears. Now you see him, now you don't. He's here every day. All by himself. But you can't see where or when he goes."

They sidled along the wrought-iron gallery, which was hung with thick red velvet curtains. The third boy stayed where he was, drawing intently. Then he moved his position, to see from another angle. He was hay-haired, shaggy and filthy. He had cut-down workmen's trousers, with braces, over a flannel shirt the colour of smoke, stained with soot. Julian said

"We could go down and stalk him. There are all sorts of odd things about him. He looks very rough. He never seems to go anywhere but here. I've waited at the exit to see him leave, and follow him, and he doesn't seem to leave. He seems to be a permanent fixture."

The boy looked up, briefly, his grimy face creased in a frown. Tom said

"He concentrates."

"He never talks to anyone that I can see. Now and then the art students look at his drawings. But he doesn't chat to them. He just creeps about the place. It's sinister."

"Do you get many robberies?"

"My father always says the keepers are criminally casual with the keys to the cases. And there are heaps and heaps of stuff lying around waiting to be catalogued, or sent to Bethnal Green. It would be terribly easy to sneak off with things. I don't even know if anyone would notice if you did, not with some of the things, though they'd notice quickly enough if anyone made an attempt on the Candlestick."

"Candlestick?"

"The Gloucester Candlestick. What he seems to be drawing, a lot of the time. The lump of gold, in the centre of that case. It's ancient and unique. I'll show it to you. We could go down, and go up to it, and disturb him." Tom was dubious about this. There was something tense about the third boy, a tough prepared energy he didn't even realise he'd noticed.

However, he agreed. He usually agreed to things. They moved, sleuthlike, from ambush to ambush behind the swags of velvet. They went under Prince Albert, out onto the turning stone stairs, down to the South Court. When they reached the Candlestick, the dirty boy was not there.

"He wasn't on the stairs," said Julian, obsessed.

Tom stopped to stare at the Candlestick. It was dully gold. It seemed heavy. It stood on three feet, each of which was a long-eared dragon, grasping a bone with grim claws, gnawing with sharp teeth. The rim of the spiked cup that held the candle was also supported by open-jawed dragons with wings and snaking tails. The whole of its thick stem was wrought of fantastic foliage, amongst which men and monsters, centaurs and monkeys, writhed, grinned, grimaced, grasped and stabbed at each other. A helmeted, gnomelike being, with huge eyes, grappled the sinuous tail of a reptile. There were other human or kobold figures, one in particular with long draggling hair and a mournful gaze. Tom thought immediately that hismotherwould need to see it. He tried, and failed, to memorise the shapes. Julian explained. It had an interesting history, he said. No one knew exactly what it was made of. It was some kind of gilt alloy. Itwas probable that it had been made in Canterbury—modelled in wax and cast—but apart from the symbols of the evangelists on the knop, it appeared not to be made for a religious use. It had turned up in the cathedral in Le Mans, from where it had disappeared during the French Revolution. A French antiquary had sold it to the Russian Prince Soltikoff. The South KensingtonMuseum had acquired it from his collection in 1861. There was nothing, anywhere, like it.

Tom did not know what a knop was, and did not know what the symbols of the evangelists were. But he saw that the thing was a whole world of secret stories. He said his mother would like to see it. It might be just what she was looking for. He would have liked to touch the heads of the dragons.

Julian was looking restlessly around him. There was a concealed door, behind a plaster cast of a guarding knight, on a marble plinth. It was slightly ajar, which he had never seen before. He had tried its handle, and it was always, as it should be, since it led down to the basement storerooms and workrooms, locked.

"I bet he went down there."

"What's down there?"

"Miles and miles of passages and cupboards and cellars, and things being moulded, or cleaned, or just kept. Let's stalk him."

There was no light, beyond what was cast on the upper steps from the door they had opened. Tom did not like the dark. He did not like transgression. He said "We can't see where we're going."

"We'll leave the door open a crack."

"Someone may come and lock it. We may get into trouble."

"We won't. I live here."

They crept down the uneven stone steps, holding a thin iron rail. At the foot of the staircase they found themselves cut off by a metal grille, beyond which stretched a long corridor, now vaguely visible as though there was a light-source at the other end. The passage was roofed with Gothic vaulting, like a church crypt, but finished in white glazed industrial bricks. Julian gave the grille an irritated shake and it swung open. He observed that this, too, should have been locked. Someone was in for trouble.

The passage opened into a dusty vault, crammed with a crowd of white effigies, men, women and children, staring out with sightless eyes. Tom thought they might be prisoners in the underworld, or even the damned. They were closely packed; the boys had to worm their way between them. Beyond this funereal chamber, two corridors branched. There was more light to the left, so they went that way, negotiated another unlocked grille, and found themselves in a treasure-house of vast gold and silver vessels, croziers, eagle-winged lecterns, fountains, soaring angels and grinning cherubs. "Electrotypes," whispered the knowledgeable Julian. A faint but steady light rippled over the metal, through little glass roundels let into the brickwork. Julian put his finger to his lips and hissed to Tom to keep still. Tom steadied himself against a silver galleon, which clanged. He sneezed.

"Don't do that."

"I can't help it. It's the dust."

They crept on, took a left, took a right, had to force their way between thickets of what Tom thought were tomb railings, surmounted by jaunty female angel-busts,with wings and pointed breasts. Julian said they were cast-iron radiator covers, commissioned from an ironmaster in Sheffield. "Cost a packet, down here because someone thought they were obtrusive," he whispered. "Which way now?"

Tom said he had no idea. Julian said they were lost, no one would find them, rats would pick their bones. Someone sneezed. Julian said

"I told you, don't do that."

"I didn't. It must have been him."

Tom was worried about hunting down a probably harmless and innocent boy. He was also worried about encountering a savage and dangerous boy.

Julian cried "We knowyou're there. Come out and give yourself up!"

He was alert and smiling, Tom saw, the successful seeker or catcher in games of pursuit.

There was a silence. Another sneeze. A slight scuffling. Julian and

Tom turned to look down the other fork of the corridor, which was obstructed by a forest of imitation marble pillars, made to support busts or vases. A wild face, under a mat of hair, appeared at knee height, framed between fake basalt and fake obsidian.

"You'd better come out and explain yourself," said Julian, with complete certainty. "You're trespassing. I should get the police."

The third boy came out on all fours, shook himself like a beast, and stood up, supporting himself briefly on the pillars. He was about Julian's height. He was shaking, whether with fear or wrath Tom could not tell. He pushed a dirty hand across his face, rubbing his eyes, which even in the gloom could be seen to be red-rimmed. He put his head down, and tensed. Tom saw the thought go through him, he could charge the two of them, head-butt them and flee down the corridors. He didn't move and didn't answer.

"What are you doing down here?" Julian insisted.

"I were hiding."

"Why? Hiding from who?"

"Just hiding. I were doing no harm. I move carefully. I don't disturb things."

"What's your name? Where do you live?"

"My name's Philip. Philip Warren. I suppose I live here. At present."

His voice was vaguely north country.Tomrecognised it, but couldn't place it. He was looking at them much as they were looking at him, as though he couldn't quite grasp that they were real. He blinked, and a tremor ran through him. Tom said

"You were drawing the Candlestick. Is that what you came for?"

"Aye."

He was clutching a kind of canvas satchel against his chest, which presumably contained his sketching materials. Tom said

"It's an amazing thing, isn't it? I hadn't seen it before."

The other boy looked him in the eye, then, with a flicker of a grin.

"Aye. Amazing, it is."

Julian spoke severely.

"You must come and explain yourself to my father."

"Oh, your father. Who's he, then?"

"He's Special Keeper of Precious Metals."

"Oh. I see."

"You must come along with us."

"I see I must. Can I get my things?"

"Things?" Julian sounded doubtful for the first time. "You mean, you've been living down here?"

"S'what I said. I got nowhere else to go. I'd rather not sleep on t'streets. I come here to draw. I saw the Museum was for workingmen to see well-made things. I mean to get work, I do, and I need drawings to show . . . I like these things."

"Can we see the drawings?" asked Tom.

"Not in this light. Upstairs, if you're interested. I'll get my things, like I said."

He ducked, and began to make his way back amongst the pillars, crouching and weaving expertly. Tom was put in mind of dwarves in mine-workings, and, since his upbringing was socially conscientious, of children in mines, pulling trucks on hands and knees. Julian was on Philip's heels. Tom followed.

"Come in," said the grimy boy, at the opening of a small storeroom, making a welcoming gesture, possibly mocking, with an arm. The storeroom contained what appeared to be a small stone hut, carved and ornamented with cherubim and seraphim, eagles and doves, acanthus and vines. It had its own little metal gate, with traces of gilding on the rusting iron.

"Convenient," said Philip. "It has a stone bed. I took the liberty of borrowing some sacks to keep warm. I'll put 'em back, naturally, where I found them."

"It's a tomb or shrine," said Julian. "Russian, by the look of it. There must have been some saint on that table, in a glass case or a reliquary.

He might still be in there, underneath, his bones that is, if he wasn't incorrupt."

"I haven't noticed him," said Philip, flatly. "He hasn't bothered me."

Tom said "Are you hungry? What do you eat?"

"Once or twice I got to help in the tea-room, moving plates and washing them. People leave a lot on their plates, you'd be surprised. And the young ladies from the Art School took notice of my drawings and sometimes they passed me a sandwich. I don't beg. I did steal one, once, when I was desperate, an egg-and-cress sandwich. I were pretty sure the young lady had no intention of eating it."

He paused.

"It isn't much," he said. "I'm hungry, yes."

He was rummaging behind the tomb in the shrine, and came out with another canvas satchel, a sketch-book, a candle stub and what looked like a roll of clothing, tied with string.

"How did you get in?" Julian persisted.

"Followed the horses and carts. You know, they turn in and drive down a ramp into these underground parts. And they unload and pack things with a deal of bustle, and it's easy enough to mingle wi' them, wi' the carters and lads, and get in."

"And the upstairs door?" Julian queried. "Which is meant to be locked at all times."

"I came across a little key."

"Came across?"

"Aye. Came across. I'll give it back. Here, take it."

Tom said

"It must be horribly frightening, down here alone at night."

"Not near so frightening as t'streets in t'East End. Not near."

Julian said "Please come with me now. You must come and explain all this to my father. He's talking to Tom's mother. This is Tom. Tom Wellwood. I'm Julian Cain."

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More Show Less

Introduction

The questions for discussion and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of The Children's Book, A. S. Byatt's dazzling, epic story of family, art, class, and betrayal.

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. Why is this novel called The Children's Book? Discuss the many possible meanings this title suggests.

2. How are fairy tales important to the novel—both to the story and to the characters themselves? Byatt has said in interviews that fairy tales and the children's books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E. Nesbit's magical stories and The Wind in the Willows, inspired her to write the novel; do you see echoes of any of your favorite children's stories here?

3. We follow a huge cast of characters for nearly three decades over the course of the novel; whom did you care about most at the end? Many of the characters are not who they seem; how did your feelings about these characters change as the story developed?

4. What secrets are the many families in the novel—the Todefright Wellwoods, the Basil Wellwoods, the Cains, the Fludds, and even Elsie and Philip—hiding from each other and from outsiders? Which of the characters' betrayals did you find most shocking?

5. How does class constrain the characters in the novel? Olive and Elsie both marry outside their class—are they similar in any other ways? Which is the greater divide for them and the other characters in the novel: class or sex? How does Philip's absorption into the Wellwood circle differ from his sister's?

6. From the opening scene, pottery—the craft of it, its history, the contrast between fine art and factory-made pieces—is a recurring presence throughout the novel. Does Olive do the right thing in apprenticing Philip to Benedict Fludd? How does Byatt use the metaphor of clay to enrich the story?

7. AGerman puppeteer is a surprise guest at the Wellwoods' Midsummer party at the beginning of the novel. What role do puppets play in the novel, and what do they represent? How does the relationship between the German and British characters change as the novel unfolds?

8. What is the significance of the Tree House? What does it mean to Tom—and to his siblings?

9. Motherhood is a crucial part of the novel, and of Olive's stories; Olive herself is something of a "Mother Goose," as in her story "The Shrubbery" on pages 105–114. But is Olive a good mother? What about Violet, and the other mothers in the story?

10. How does the notion of lineage—of knowing who one's real parents are—affect the children in the novel? Does knowing "the truth" ultimately make much difference to the adults the children grow into—or do the people who actually raise them, and the way they are raised, make more of an impact?

11. A number of the adult characters are artists in one way or another; many of them—through their art or their actions—cause damage to the other people in their lives. Discuss how the artists in the novel both create and destroy.

12. Discuss the Fludd family. Why do you think Byatt chose not to divulge the specifics of Benedict's acts? What do you think he did?

13. In an essay she wrote for the London Times, Byatt wrote, "There is a strong case to be made that the Edwardians enjoyed school stories, magical tales, and tales of children alone in landscapes—woodland camps, secret expeditions—because they were themselves reluctant to grow up." How do the adults in the novel reflect this idea? What distinction do the characters make between childhood and adulthood? What distinction is Byatt making through the novel?

14. Several characters embrace the notion of free love, or of sex outside marriage. What is the result? Is it good for any of them? How do these attitudes resemble, or not, those of the 1960s in the United States?

15. How is Dorothy—who doesn't share her mother's love of stories, who is the serious daughter, and who becomes a doctor—different from her siblings? How does Humphry's revelation, and his betrayal, change her?

16. Several characters undergo transformations. Is Charles/Karl's the most obvious, or the least?

17. Olive writes stories for each of her seven children, which are bound into their own private books. As the novel unfolds, the story written for her oldest and most beloved son, Tom—"Tom Underground"—becomes more and more important. Why does he cling so tightly to this fairy tale? What does the metaphor of shadow signify? Why does he see the play his mother writes as a betrayal?

18. On page 562, Dorothy tells Tom that he's responsible for Philip's success. Is this accurate? Why or why not?

19. What is the significance of the stone with a hole that Tom picks up on page 586?

20. Why does Hedda try to destroy the Gloucester Candlestick? Is it a coincidence that she chose this item? How does the suffragette movement affect her and the other women in the story?

21. Reread Julian's poetry. How does it reflect upon the novel itself?

22. The Children's Book is a historical panorama that encompasses many political and social movements of the early twentieth century. Were you familiar with the figures and movements Byatt discusses: the Fabian Society, British socialists, women's rights, etc.? What is your understanding of their purpose in the novel?

23. The acknowledgments give a glimpse of the research that went into the novel; what subjects did you most enjoy learning about? How does Byatt's erudition enrich her storytelling?

24. The Great War seems to take nearly all of the characters by surprise; were you surprised by the scope of the damage it inflicted? Which character is most changed by the war? Did it change the way you saw the characters' sexual and personal secrets—and how they themselves saw their own lives?

25. Reread page 675, the last page of the novel. Is it a happy ending? What emotions are conjured by this reunion, which takes place in a far different setting than that which opens the novel—and around a bowl of soup?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. Why is this novel called The Children's Book? Discuss the many possible meanings this title suggests.

2. How are fairy tales important to the novel—both to the story and to the characters themselves? Byatt has said in interviews that fairy tales and the children's books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E. Nesbit's magical stories and The Wind in the Willows, inspired her to write the novel; do you see echoes of any of your favorite children's stories here?

3. We follow a huge cast of characters for nearly three decades over the course of the novel; whom did you care about most at the end? Many of the characters are not who they seem; how did your feelings about these characters change as the story developed?

4. What secrets are the many families in the novel—the Todefright Wellwoods, the Basil Wellwoods, the Cains, the Fludds, and even Elsie and Philip—hiding from each other and from outsiders? Which of the characters' betrayals did you find most shocking?

5. How does class constrain the characters in the novel? Olive and Elsie both marry outside their class—are they similar in any other ways? Which is the greater divide for them and the other characters in the novel: class or sex? How does Philip's absorption into the Wellwood circle differ from his sister's?

6. From the opening scene, pottery—the craft of it, its history, the contrast between fine art and factory-made pieces—is a recurring presence throughout the novel. Does Olive do the right thing in apprenticing Philip to Benedict Fludd? How does Byatt use the metaphor of clay to enrich the story?

7. A German puppeteer is a surprise guest at the Wellwoods' Midsummer party at the beginning of the novel. What role do puppets play in the novel, and what do they represent? How does the relationship between the German and British characters change as the novel unfolds?

8. What is the significance of the Tree House? What does it mean to Tom—and to his siblings?

9. Motherhood is a crucial part of the novel, and of Olive's stories; Olive herself is something of a "Mother Goose," as in her story "The Shrubbery". But is Olive a good mother? What about Violet, and the other mothers in the story?

10. How does the notion of lineage—of knowing who one's real parents are—affect the children in the novel? Does knowing "the truth" ultimately make much difference to the adults the children grow into—or do the people who actually raise them, and the way they are raised, make more of an impact?

11. A number of the adult characters are artists in one way or another; many of them—through their art or their actions—cause damage to the other people in their lives. Discuss how the artists in the novel both create and destroy.

12. Discuss the Fludd family. Why do you think Byatt chose not to divulge the specifics of Benedict's acts? What do you think he did?

13. In an essay she wrote for the London Times, Byatt wrote, "There is a strong case to be made that the Edwardians enjoyed school stories, magical tales, and tales of children alone in landscapes—woodland camps, secret expeditions—because they were themselves reluctant to grow up." How do the adults in the novel reflect this idea? What distinction do the characters make between childhood and adulthood? What distinction is Byatt making through the novel?

14. Several characters embrace the notion of free love, or of sex outside marriage. What is the result? Is it good for any of them? How do these attitudes resemble, or not, those of the 1960s in the United States?

15. How is Dorothy—who doesn't share her mother's love of stories, who is the serious daughter, and who becomes a doctor—different from her siblings? How does Humphry's revelation, and his betrayal, change her?

16. Several characters undergo transformations. Is Charles/Karl's the most obvious, or the least?

17. Olive writes stories for each of her seven children, which are bound into their own private books. As the novel unfolds, the story written for her oldest and most beloved son, Tom—"Tom Underground"—becomes more and more important. Why does he cling so tightly to this fairy tale? What does the metaphor of shadow signify? Why does he see the play his mother writes as a betrayal?

18. Dorothy tells Tom that he's responsible for Philip's success. Is this accurate? Why or why not?

19. What is the significance of the stone with a hole that Tom picks up?

20. Why does Hedda try to destroy the Gloucester Candlestick? Is it a coincidence that she chose this item? How does the suffragette movement affect her and the other women in the story?

21. Reread Julian's poetry. How does it reflect upon the novel itself?

22. The Children's Book is a historical panorama that encompasses many political and social movements of the early twentieth century. Were you familiar with the figures and movements Byatt discusses: the Fabian Society, British socialists, women's rights, etc.? What is your understanding of their purpose in the novel?

23. The acknowledgments give a glimpse of the research that went into the novel; what subjects did you most enjoy learning about? How does Byatt's erudition enrich her storytelling?

24. The Great War seems to take nearly all of the characters by surprise; were you surprised by the scope of the damage it inflicted? Which character is most changed by the war? Did it change the way you saw the characters' sexual and personal secrets—and how they themselves saw their own lives?

25. Reread pages 878–879, the last pages of the novel. Is it a happy ending? What emotions are conjured by this reunion, which takes place in a far different setting than that which opens the novel—and around a bowl of soup?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 76 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(28)

4 Star

(19)

3 Star

(15)

2 Star

(9)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 76 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A disappointed reader

    I was extremely disappointed with this book. It evoked a sense of frustration and confusion. The author introduces a few characters and I honestly don't think there was a main character. For a minute I thought Olive might be the heroine of the story but her story went nowhere. I don't mind the fact that there were so many characters, but I do mind that each character wasn't developed. I didn't fall in love or care deeply about any of them, since the author didn't talk in depth about any of them. She introduced them to me, gave me a glance into their lives, but I didn't feel any connection with any of them, well except for one character who is Tom but he was short lived. The ending was sad, yes, I didn't feel sad or hurt or sympathy or any feeling of loss, I didn't know any of the characters to care so much about what happened to any of them , and I was very very happy that the book was over and done with.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Sophisticated Reading--Not Child's PLay

    The Children's Book is a collection of fantasies--not just Olive Wellwood's evolving children's stories and Stern's marionette shows, but the fantasies lived out by the adults in the decades leading up to the first World War. The exposé of these fantasies is at the heart of the novel. Olive and Humphrey believe in the fantasy of free love: that it causes no jealousy between spouses, nor that it damages any of the seven children in their household, born from various liaisons yet raised to believe they are true siblings. Love, sad to say, does not conquer all, and some in the novel who give it too freely pay a heavy price. Another fantasy: that freedom allows children to grow up happy and full of potential; but freedom taken too far borders upon neglect, and not all children are by nature independent. Another set of fantasies: that art can change the course of world events, and that genius is always to be indulged for its own sake. The list goes on and on. Like the characters' fantasy lives, Olive Wellwood's stories are delightfully magical on the surface yet dark and dangerous underneath.

    The novel's style and structure are inseparable, both building on the possibilities and threats in the space between fantasy and reality, between the Victorian age and the new post-world war period. Some readers have complained about excessive details in the first part of the novel; others complain about the brevity of the last. I feel this is intentional on Byatt's part, a verbal realization of the changing cultural and political milieu. The late Victorian period was still addicted to rigid social morés and manners, embellishment of one's person and one's home, etc.--and, as such, it gave birth to a myriad of reactionary movements, most of them equally pompous in their moral (or amoral) certitude. On the other hand, the rapid and extensive devastation of the war, a political killing machine gone amuck, left people back home stunned and empty--as reflected in Byatt's quickfire, almost callous list of the young men, fantasy-world Fludds and Cains and Wellwoods, cut down by a reality beyond their once-imagined control. Like Stern's marionettes, the novel's human characters live in a fantasy world, unaware of the strings that manipulate their actions.

    Yes, the book is massive and complex, and it takes some concentration to keep track of the various characters and their relations to one another. It's the kind of book that, when you finish it, you need to think about it for awhile, and then you know that you will need to read it again to fully appreciate its genius.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Another beautiful novel from Byatt

    I wanted to read Byatt's new novel about the childhood of the WWI generation, looking forward to her beautiful description and use of multiple voices. "The Children's Book" did not disappoint. Beautiful prose, complete with fairy tales and poems "written" by her characters. A sad novel, too, because there is a sense of the inevitable in the characters but very well-worth the time spent reading.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The Eerie Coterie's Fall 2009 "Dark Pages" Selection

    The Eerie Coterie's first nominated "Dark Pages" selection is one of the best books of 2009. As our fall Conversation Group choice you are in for one breathtaking ride. The Children's Book is a Victorian novel encompassed by the Wellwoods and the Fludds, two families of unending mystery. Olive Wellwood is a children's book writer and creates a different story for each of her own children. A.S. Byatt is one of those rare writers who can tackle themes buffered by fairy tales, supernatural elements, mythology and magic and give you a tale so beautifully entwined with real life moments that it always comes out believable. The Eerie Coterie is proud to have THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt be our Fall 2009 featured title. The book jacket alone is worth it for you to pick up.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2013

    The Children¿s Book is the fifth stand-alone novel my British au

    The Children’s Book is the fifth stand-alone novel my British author, Antonia S. Byatt. This novel spans about a quarter of a century, starting in 1895, and tells the story of children’s author, Olive Wellwood, her extended family, friends and acquaintances. Against a backdrop of Victorian, then Edwardian then World War One England, Byatt creates a dynasty that is exposed to Imperialists, Socialists, Fabians, Malthusians, Theosophists, and revolutionaries. Jung, Freud, Oscar Wilde, H.G.Wells, Lalique, women’s suffrage, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Grande Exposition in Paris all play their part. This family is involved, not just in children’s literature, but also pottery, jewellery making, puppeteering, fairy mythology, plays and Art and Craft Summer Camps. Byatt intersperses the narrative with Olive’s fiction and, later, poetry by one of the children. As the children of the various families grow and develop, they come to realise that the adults they trust and rely on are not what they seem, and secrets are revealed that change lives. Adultery is rife in this novel, as are births where parentage is suspect; suicides and war deaths take their toll too. Byatt’s descriptions are highly evocative: pottery, puppets and nature are almost tangible. The Lalique brooch on the cover of this edition presages the sumptuous work within. A magical read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    so far, so good

    I am about halfway through the book and am thoroughly enjoying the experience. The language is beautiful and the characters engaging. It's one of those books that you can read slowly over time; not a page-turner, but a book that you look forward to going back to every time you put it down for awhile. At first, I had trouble keeping all the characters straight and had to go back into the book to remind myself who everyone was, but now there is more of a focus on three of four characters so it's a bit easier to manage. So far, so good. I recommend the book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2010

    The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt - a review

    The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt is well written, delightful, informative and fun. At times, A.S. Byatt is a bit pedantic in her need to unfurl the history of Great Britain at the turn of the 19th to 20th Centuries. However, she successfully weaves all the elements of the times into her tale, including: art, politics, theater, music, literature, philosophy, economics and sociology. The book is the story of the Wellwood family and their friends. Olivia Wellwood writes children's tales using her own children for inspiration, as well as encorporating the tales that they invent with her, in their individual books, into her published books and towards the end of the book - her play. The reader watches the children grow as the times change. Lives of light, joy, sensuality, frivolity, fecklessness, darken as the times change and World War 1 approaches, and, in the cases of the individual children, as the realities of adulthood replace the magical childhood that their mother had created for them. The Arts and Crafts movement delightfully whirls around the family, their friends and acquaintances. There are emotional and political dramas; actions have repercussions at times many years later and even at least one suggested repercussion that will occur beyond the scope of the book. There is a lot going on and it is all artfully done, it is never overwhelming. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    One of Year's Best--to Me!

    A web of relationships among several families involved in the arts, science and social movements during England's and Germany's Belle Époche. Children's stories, the Victoria and Albert Museum, craft pottery, puppet theater-Byatt covers an exhaustive range of topics and historical figures from that time. But, to me, she does it flawlessly as always. Her command of subject and her writing is a treasure.

    Those who have trouble with lots of characters in novels would do well to make a list. The children, particularly, all come and go through the years. It's not just one person's story, but Phillip, the apprentice potter 'rescued' from the museum, and Dorothy, one family's determined-to-be-different daughter, give hope that class and circumstance will somehow give way to something more that transcends this time and this place. Highly recommended. One of the best books I've read this year.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Disappointing, slow moving. Not the expected book at all

    "The Childrens Book" was set up to make a point, I'm sure, or even a series of points. It was very slow moving, took forever for me to get interested in it. Some of the characters were engaging and I enjoyed the theme of women's rights but that was a minor theme. It was mixed up with a lot of the amount of damage done to the women characters. The somewhat sympathetic theme of homosexuality was not kept true, either. By the end the gay characters were turning straight as if they had just been misunderstood!

    I think that the ending was the biggest disappointment. It was too rushed as if the author was told to just wrap up the loose ends quickly because that was the way it came off. The problem was that there were few characters that I cared about by the time the end came.

    I was hugely disappointed with the entire book. I had very high hopes for it and the whole thing fizzled.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The Children's Book!

    This is a great book in its scope and originality. At least, I've never read anything like it before and it was the first novel by Byatt that I've read. I loved the characters and the various historical figures that come in and out of the novel. I love how Byatt evokes a strong sense of place no matter if we are in England, Germany or France. Her knowledge of England at the turn of the 19th century is astounding. If you like historical fiction than this is for you! Also if you want to learn a few things or simply love art, this is for you! My only criticism of this book is that at times it becomes tedious as Byatt tends to stray away from the action of the story and jumps into page long explanations of background information that tends to bore. I think it could've been a bit shorter and I think the ending wraps up to suddenly and comes off as slightly contrived. I would recommend this to someone who is looking for an intellectual and thought provoking book, not someone looking for a quick read. I read fast and it took me two months while reading other books to get through this dense novel!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2010

    Even better than Possession!

    This is an extraordinary novel! It is at once a deep and rich narrative of an all too human family in all its darkness and at the same time a breathtakingly scholarly depiction of a period of human history - its politics, its sociology, its arts, its system of education, and especially the struggle of women. One comes away with the same kind of feeling that one might get from hearing a master professor give his [her!] best lecture of the year. I loved Possession, but I found this to be an even richer experience. I will be giving this book to my children and to my friends as one of the best novels I have read in some time! READ THIS BOOK!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 6, 2012

    Beautifully written.

    Beautifully written.

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  • Posted September 23, 2012

    For an author with such glowing remarks about her books, I found

    For an author with such glowing remarks about her books, I found this a tedious book to read and honestly, could not finish. It was as though Ms. Byatt was trying to impress with her choice of words, descriptions of dress, furniture and locale, but all it did was confuse and wear me out.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 24, 2012

    An exceptional, involving, complex novel.

    An exceptional, involving, complex novel.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 22, 2012

    This book takes you on a great journey!

    This book took me a very long time to read because it is not very gripping. At the same time everytime I went to read The Children's Book I was excited to see what was coming next. Throughout the entire book the reader gets to watch a great variety of people go through life and learn many different lessons and I personally really enjoyed it. I am happy to read any book that can take the reader through the whole spectrum of emotions from happiness to anger and everything in between, and this book definitely does just that. The book starts off a bit slow but once the reader gets to know the characters and connect with some the story becomes really a great read. I definitely recommend The Children's Book to any reader.

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  • Posted November 2, 2011

    This book takes you on a great journey!

    This book took me a very long time to read because it is not very gripping. At the same time everytime I went to read The Children's Book I was excited to see what was coming next. Throughout the entire book the reader gets to watch a great variety of people go through life and learn many different lessons and I personally really enjoyed it. I am happy to read any book that can take the reader through the whole spectrum of emotions from happiness to anger and everything in between, and this book definitely does just that. The book starts off a bit slow but once the reader gets to know the characters and connect with some the story becomes really a great read. I definitely recommend The Children's Book to any reader.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2011

    A tightly woven tapestry

    AS Byatt presents her readers with a historical panorama full of rich characters. Her story moves through the lives of a Bohemian family and their friends at a pace that is perhaps slow, but it allow breathing room for the characters and has you invest in the lives of the children we watch grow up through the tale.
    One of Byatt's favorite themes, the idea of fairy stories and passing along inventions and tales comes through very strong. It feels much stronger character and narrative-wise than her novel Possession, which lacked the blood and passion that this novel has more of.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2011

    Highly recommend - A wonderful story

    I loved this book and another of her books, not available electronically.

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  • Posted June 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Really Wanted to Love This Book

    OK. I am mid-way through the book. I so wanted to love this book. The premise is engaging and the embedded fairy tales are enjoyable. However, so far there just does not seem like there is a plot, but a series of incidents strung together and loosely bound. I feel frustrated. It took a while to understand who all these characters were, and I am hoping for more intertwining, but so far, the novel feels more like a series of vignettes. I may have to put it down and pick up another one.

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  • Posted September 6, 2010

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    Characters so finely drawn you won't soon forget them

    A review of this spell-binding novel demands the superlatives we remember from 1950s movies-"a story you'll never forget," "characters so real they'll take up permanent residence in your heart and mind," "history masterfully interpreted." Yes, the book is that good. Erudite and extraordinary, it's better written and carries more layers and dimensions than we find in the books about the boy wizards. Blurbs on the first pages call The Children's Book a literary feast and a tragic fairy tale. They're right. Byatt, who is the author of Possession, a novel of the secret lives of Victorian poets and modern literary scholars that won the Booker Prize, turns her attention here to the late Victorian era. This was a golden age in England, when idealistic but moneyed and often naïve people turned away from the business of banking and empire to live pastoral, medievalesque lives in the Garden of England, which is roughly the Kentish lands south of the Thames. It's the age of Fabians, anarchists, and other idealists, the romanticized society satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, with its Wildean poets and lovesick maidens. Following the golden age comes the silver age, the Edwardian era whose king was more interested in his mistresses than anything else and whose authors gave us faux children's books like Wind in the Willows and Puck of Pook's Hill, which transported adults to idealized visions of a make-believe childhood. After Edward's death came the age of lead-World War I, in which almost an entire generation of Englishmen was slaughtered. Byatt brings history and historical figures like Rupert Brooke into the lives of her fictitious but realistic families, all of which have many children. We watch these children grow up through the ages of gold, silver, and lead. Some of them survive. The novel is filled with the details of family life, but there are secrets in these families. Some of the children learn that their mothers aren't the women they've always believed they were, their fathers are not who they think, their siblings and friends and cousins have secrets great and small. When one girl learns that her true father, for example, is a famous German puppeteer, she goes to visit him, and we see the artistic ferment of Munich before the war. Another girl wants to become a doctor in an age when girls were taught to embroider and play the piano but not to know anything about the human body. The wife and daughters of a famous artist live passive, zombie-like lives; we learn that the artist's house has a hidden room filled with pornographic bowls. Byatt's writing is satirical and elegiac at the same time, details are sharp, and the lives of the children of this 879-page novel are intertwined like the art deco stems and leaves of fantastical plants that bloom in surprising places and ways. While the only thing we might wish for in this novel is a list of characters that shows who's related to whom (and how), this is a book you'll pick up in every spare minute of your day, the book you'll sit and read for another five minutes that stretch into hours. Quill says: The Children's Book is about the ordinary, magical lives of people so finely drawn we won't soon forget them.

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