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- More About Not AvailablePublishers Weekly Reviews
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 25.
- Review Date: 2009-06-08
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)BookPage Reviews
Byatt tells the story of an age
The heft of A.S. Byatt’s latest work, The Children’s Book, promises a detailed, sprawling story. But the actual scope of this ambitious novel has to be experienced to be believed. The story of an age more than anything else, it encompasses 25 years (1895-1919) and has at least that many main characters, which leaves the reader wondering how they can all come to such vivid life in just 700 pages.
If such a wide-ranging saga can be said to have a center, this novel’s is Olive Wellwood, a complicated woman whose writing for children (she’s based in part on the writer E. Nesbit) financially supports the large family her sister, Violet, cares for while Olive writes and her husband works in Parliament. The Wellwoods are part of a circle of artistic friends, and the children are raised in a bohemian, permissive atmosphere that rivals Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.
Themes of creation and art—its power and what a person must sacrifice in its pursuit—are at the heart of The Children’s Book. Fairy-tale allusions abound, and some of the best passages are Olive’s writings, which have the almost subliminal creepiness found in the best fairy tales. Byatt displays her signature interest in secrets of all sorts, from those parents keep from children to those we hide from ourselves. Her characters juggle physical and intellectual desires, pursuits and goals—like Olive’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, whose desire to become a doctor is verbally but not always materially supported by her counter-cultural family; and Phillip, a runaway with the drive and genius to become a great potter, who is discovered living in the basement of the brand-new South Kensington (soon to be Victoria & Albert) Museum at the beginning of the book.
The Children’s Book has been touted as Byatt’s best work since Possession, the 1990 novel that brought the author a wider audience (she’s been publishing novels since 1964). The two novels do share many characteristics, but in many ways The Children’s Book, with its meticulous, complete rendering of a time and place, surpasses that earlier work. Masterful, complex and thought provoking, it will linger in the mind.