This was one of my favorites that I read last year as well as a book that, once again, left me incredibly envious in the face of A. S. Byatt’s sheer talent and beautiful use of words.
The Children’s Book is an unwieldly, huge, overstuffed tome about family, art, history, growing-up, fitting into the world. At its broadest. At a narrower level it is about the immediate and extended Bohemian family of the seven Wellwood children and their matriarch, Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s tales. Set over a large span of years, covering the Victorian era through the reign of King George and World War I, there are such a multitude of characters that it is easy to get lost at first: Humphrey (Olive’s husband)’s brother, wife, and children; other cousins; a strange family belonging to the potter who lives in the marshes, Violet, the Wellwoods’ spinster aunt, the Cains, and on and on and on. On a second reading it is easier to distinguish all of them, and though certain characters suffer in development, others are so real and realized that you will fall in love with them (the stubborn Dorothy, determined to become a surgeon; Tom, who never quite grows up).
The “plot” is simply the children growing up and discovering that the world is not what they thought it was at first; or as Philip Larkin would have put it, “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” Even the supposedly idyllic time period and home, the rambling, charming country house of Todefright, contain secrets–not necessarily dark secrets, but everyday, family unpleasantness. Cuckoos are a recurring theme, and puppets, for a reason. As the children grow, so does the world change, and the major events in their lives shift from garden parties and making works of art to dealing with the brutality of English public schools, pregnancy, incest, and the horror of the First World War. (Yes, things never really do “lighten up” in Byatt’s world…)
But it’s absolutely mesmerizing reading, sometimes a bit like an art and history lesson more so than a novel, but what a beautiful way to phrase everything. The scenes where the characters travel to the Great Exhibition in Paris really do somehow manage to capture the sheer grandeur and wonder that must have been so overwhelming at the time.
Again, I don’t have much to say about this book other than that it’s quite an impressive and wonderful conglomeration that I will be re-reading again, and probably sooner than I should.