The Children's Book
Wed Sep 30 2009
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
A.S. Byatt’s 600-plus-page novel harbors more than 20 protagonists, spans two crucial decades of British history (encompassing both the Boer and First World wars), includes several serialized fairy tales, and contains lengthy asides about Belle Epoque pottery and the treatment of suffragette hunger strikers. That’s a lot of plot for a contemporary novel to chew, but The Children’s Book proves to be riveting in each one of its wayward strains. The novel begins and ends with the Wellwoods, a family of genteel bohemians. Moving through the years and an ever-growing web of relationships and connections, the clan faces challenges ranging from unwanted pregnancies to designing the Victoria and Albert Museum. 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. Despite her ease with the lore of childhood, Olive can be a neglectful mother. In recompense, she writes personalized stories for each of her offspring. These tales are supposed to be “secret and private,” but eventually she begins cannibalizing them for much-needed cash, and sets in motion the book’s original sin; likewise, her kids will soon be tossed from a fantastical 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 the 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 World War I. 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