By: A.S. Byatt
Publisher: Vintage International
Publication Date: August 2010
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: September 6, 2010
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. One of the mothers is a writer who creates on-going individualized books of fairy-tale adventures for her children, but when her son Tom’s book becomes a stage play with lifelike marionettes and women in breeches roles (like Peter Pan, which was written at the same time), Tom himself runs away. 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. It’s more enchanting than anything you’ll find on the Net or the Web.
Quill says: The Children’s Book is about the ordinary, magical lives of people so finely drawn we won’t soon forget them.