When Olive Wellwood's oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum--a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive's magical tales--she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends--a world that conceals more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined and that will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces.
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.
The Children's Book is a family saga. It centres on the Wellwoods, a large family living in southern England at the end of the 19th century. For over 600 pages, readers grow with the Wellwoods, along with their friends the Cain family and the Fludd family, learning about the changing political and social ideals of the time. Spanning about 25 years, The Children's Book begins in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, and ends with the conclusion of World War I. This was a time of unrest, of changing gender roles and new political factions, and Byatt's novel is as much a history lesson as it is a captivating story. Her research is meticulous, and her writing demands an educated audience - frequently I found myself reading next to my laptop, so that I could clarify unknown terms or the stories of famous authors, politicians, and suffragettes. This is anything but an easy summer read.
The Children's Book is truly about children - the Wellwoods, Cains and Fludds - but it is also about their parents. Humphry and Olive Wellwood seem the perfect parents, and their seven children live a delightfully pastoral existence. Olive writes children's stories, and some of her tales weave throughout the narrative. Benedict and Seraphita Fludd are much less satisfactory parents. Benedict is a potter, and a genius one at that. He cares for nothing but his art, and Byatt hints that his only relationship with his daughters is a sinister one. Into the life of the Fludds comes Phillip Warren, a runaway with a potter's gift that might someday rival Fludd's. The Cain family is presided over by Major Prosper Cain, whose wife died giving birth to his daughter, Florence. A second Wellwood family lives in London, and frequently visits their country cousins. All of these characters - along with many others - are introduced in the first few chapters, and their lives quickly become entwined.
Byatt outlines the lives of her characters, and that of their time-period, in great detail - and yet, this novel is full of secrets. There is much upon which the reader must speculate, and key scenes or information may never be revealed. While the reader gets minute descriptions of artwork and of pottery processes, we never find out what happened to Tom when he ran away, or why Violet, Olive's sister, never married. These secrets add to the complexity of The Children's Book, and as a reader who dislikes being spoonfed, I enjoyed it all the more for them.
Byatt's book was a surprise for me - I had never really considered reading her before, and was unaware of her beautiful way with words, or her complex narratives. The Children's Book has so many themes - art, love, sex, maturing, politics - the list goes on. I was drawn into the world of the Wellwoods, and after over 600 pages, I only wanted more.
This is the first of the Booker Prize longlist that I have read, and it already is, in my mind, a serious contender for the prize.
A. S. Byatt definitely did her research. The book is filled with lush details and vibrant descriptions of the time period, to the point that if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself playing in the yard, or exploring the woods with the children at the turn of the century. At points the book read more like a historical commentary on the social conditions in the late 1800's and the story itself was just a faint backdrop to hang the multitude of facts, statistics, and organizational names on. When the story was being told, I found myself intrigued, but the constant interruption caused the overall flow of the story to feel stunted and disjointed. I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I actually did, but I can see how some people who are well versed in the references she makes and in this particular period of history could really sink their teeth into this one.
I think this book is really about creation. The creation of pieces of art: stories, theatrical events and physical artworks. Byatt's writing vividly conveys both the beauty and impact of the art and the visceral hunger of the artist to create, and to draw inspiration from everything around them. The political ferment of the time and its desire to create new kinds of people, of societies, of relations between the sexes. And above all, the creation of individuals: the way that parents try (and fail) to shape their children's lives, and the way those children create themselves into the adults they become. Of course, the other side of creation is destruction, and we see plenty of that too - the genius artist who destroys his own masterpieces, the destruction of people's lives by the thoughtless or evil actions of others, the destructive ferment of anarchism. And at the very end, the First World War.
So this book is also about the period of time in which it was set, a time in which so many of the changes which have created our modern world were set in train, but perhaps also a world of hope and possibility, whose gilded nature was impossible to recover after those four years of blood and devastation.
I found this a wonderful read. It reminded me a little of my experience of reading Byatt's Possession when I was about 18, which I felt really opened my eyes to the richness and depth of good writing (as opposed to just reading for the story).
Incidentally, the cover is excellent. A turquoise Lalique brooch, surrounded by curlicues and ornamentations which somehow bring to mind both William Morris and the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the key settings in the book. And on the back, a faint black silhouette against a dark blue background, of WWI soldiers marching raggedly across the battlefields.
The story follows the progress of the adults and children, their extended families and numerous friends and relations from the end of the Victorian era in 1895 through WWI. Through these characters many issues of great relevance in England during that period are encompassed, including women's higher education and the suffrage movement, the class wars, anarchism and socialism. The Arts and Crafts movement is a recurring theme, and various historical figures are incorporated into the story such as Edward Carpenter, William Morris, J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke.
I found this book by turns fascinating and frustrating. The main story elements were engaging and the unfolding drama was captivating, but my limited understanding of several of the issues broached prevented me from gaining a fuller appreciation for the many ways in which Byatt wove historical and fictional elements together. At the same time, for one interested in that period, the book provides plenty of threads one can pick up on for further reading. Recommended for those interested in works of great scope and intellectual stimulation.
If I pulled any one of the dozens of quotes I underlined, they would only provide a tantalizing glimpse of the whole – as if I held up a single piece of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful picture!” You simply have to read this novel and immerse yourself in this fantastic world created by the Booker Prize winner for Possession in 1990. I had the good fortune to meet A.S. Byatt at Baylor University when I was a grad student there. She delivered the Virginia Beall Lecture on Literature in 1994. She also sat in on a class I was taking – British Women Writers. Meeting her was one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. Her insights on writing, reading, and other English Women writers were priceless.
The Children’s Book revolves around five families. Basil Wellwood, a wealthy conservative banker and his wife, Katharina, and their two children; Basil’s brother Humphry Wellwood, also a banker – at first – and his wife Olive, a writer of children’s tales, and their eight children; Prosper Cain, widower and curator of a major museum in London, and his two children; Benedict Fludd, master potter, and his wife Seraphita and their three children; and, lastly, Phillip and Elise, orphans of poor working people.
Humphry and Olive give a “Midsummer Party,” and Byatt describes the attendees. “Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays in converted cottages and old farmhouses…the children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to…They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks” (31). These progressives had radical views on everything from raising children to women’s suffrage.
Byatt presents this foundational information and weaves a tale spanning about 30 years. Imagine the parties, the family crises, the current events, the intermingling of all these children with the arts – writing, painting, pottery, music, reading, education, the theater – well, you get the idea.
The most amazing thing is the fluid and beautiful prose Byatt has given the reader. If Possession has a revered place in your library and reading history -- and it should! -- you will become immersed in this marvelous story. The surprising and inevitable, shocking and unexpected endings will not fail to disappoint.
I would like to offer some tips which might make this a more enjoyable read. Make family trees of the five families, and refer to it frequently. The children travel, party, and visit together frequently, and this helps keep the relationships in order. Also, I wish I had a detailed map of England in and around London, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Dungeness so I could follow the travels of these characters. One of my top reads of the year – 10 stars out of five.
The Arts and Crafts movement is beautifully detailed here, both in the setting up of the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the pottery and literature of the time. Charles, a son of the London branch of the Wellwoods, goes to Munich and experiences the vibrant artistic and political life in Schwabing. Another daughter involves herself in the suffragette movement. If the social history of the Edwardian era interests you, then you'll love this book. If William Morris and the Suffragette movement make you yawn, you might not want to read this one.
Set in the last years of the Victoria era through the Edwardian era, the epic story follows four families as they interact and grow. On the surface, most of them appear reasonably conventional. But these are people who are not following societies rules; we have free thinkers, we have women who want an education, a woman who is the main wage earner in the family, sex outside of marriage- lots of that-, homosexuality, people crossing class boundaries, Socialists, anarchists, laudanum addicts and child abusers. Of course, this is an era when the rules were changing. New technologies, new philosophies, were springing up all around. But while the world was, in many ways, changing for the better, these families were, in many ways, unraveling.
Byatt fills the book with intense detail about everything she touches on (the author is an avid researcher)- the meals, the clothing, the art, the politics. She creates an atmosphere that immerses the reader completely. Was there too much detail? I don’t think so- I only found myself starting to skim a couple of times, when the subject was politics- but I know other readers will disagree. I enjoyed my lushly described trip back in time. This lushness is part of the author’s technique- the first parts of the novel are described in this way; the last section, which deals with WW 2, is not. It is drawn with harsh, spare strokes that slash at the reader’s emotions. As innocence is lost, year by year, so is the lush beauty. Very well done, I say.
It spans a fascinating period of English history: the end of the 19th century until the first world war. Historically, the end of the straightlaced Victorian era and what proved to be an abortive 'new world'. It is based in Kent, in the remote and fascinating countryside around Romney Marsh, with excursions to London, Cambridge, Paris, Munich and beyond. The pivotal character, Olive Welwood, is a mother of many children and a writer of children's books. She comes from working-class mining background, marries a husband with intelligence and political ideals, but, once he exercises those ideals to leave his job in the city, has to financially support her family in their large rambling home by her writing. Olive tries to leave behind her old life and leave behind the old world. She tries to be liberated, 'modern' and creative, but the extent to which she can do that while paying attention to her responsibilities as a mother and breadwinner is debated.
Responsibility is a central theme of this book. To what extent can a creative/bohemian lifestyle enable one to live responsibly in the world? Olive's husband, Humphry, looks down on his brother, Basil, a respected banker (who indeed makes some rather morally dubious financial decisions), but Humphry depends on his wife financially and yet conducts frequent affairs, often leading to the birth of children who he (read: Olive) has to support. Benefict Fludd, the great artist, seems to expect that his artistic temperament can forgive his sexual interest in his own children, and his wife, helped by drugs, disengages from existence completely. Herbert Methley, novelist and speaker on sexual liberation, impregnates young women and leaves it up to his wife to take responsibility. This is not to say that this is an anti-male book. Many of the admirable characters, notably Prosper Cain and Philip Warren, are male - the first coming from a military background, the second from poverty. But any novel about progressive thinking and responsibility set in this time must necessarily consider the extent to which women often had to bear the brunt of the negatives flowing from the ideals of the time.
It also has to engage with the lack of realism within those same ideals . Humphry and Olive are left-wing Fabians, but think nothing of sending their son to an English public (i.e. private) school, which damages him, possibly irreperably. The importance of women's education is discussed and debated, rather than assumed, and, of course, the sacrifice that educated women of the time made is noted. Basil's son, Charles, is attracted by the radicalism of anarchy but cannot assent to the assumption that murder is an acceptable form of political statement. The creative core of the book lies within the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris, with its emphasis on the dignity of labour and the importance of making things oneself from scratch, rather than dividing labour and industrialisation. The positive side of this movement can be derived from the story of Philip - born in the Potteries, with parents who died from the consequences of industrial production of ceramics, he is able to make a name for himself as a ceramic artist. But the naivity is obvious - the dignity of creative work is all very well, but it takes Geraint, Fludd's son who rebels by becoming a banker, to remind everyone that one needs to make money in order to eat.
As the title suggests, this is a book about children. Byatt seems to be telling us that this is a book about adults acting like children, and children acting like adults. This period in history was a period when children stopped being 'seen but not heard.' They were often treated like adults and children's literature saw what many still believe to be its golden era. But, of course, as the final section reminds us, it was this generation of European children who were victims of the horrors of the First World War.
One thing that was impressed on me here was the possible contemporary parallels. My generation is a generation who have grown up in relative prosperity and are perhaps therefore more likely to lean towards irresponsibiity and excessive idealism. The dominance of children's literature is striking, as is the "back to earth" aesthetic, which may be better expressed nowadays by the endless TV shows encouraging us to move to the country and keep chickens (wearing Cath Kidstone aprons and with roses in our hair, presumably!) - an aesthetic which has little to do with real country life and is only possible with large amounts of income.
It's not an easy, light read. As many reviewers have observed, you need to take on an awful lot of information in order to make sense of it and its context. It's not to be read quickly and it's probably to be read more than once. But I recommend it.
The Children's Book is very well written and it is a book you will be thinking about long after you've finished it. The main characters are well drawn. The sense of place and time stands out as a character of its own as history plays itself out and events occur quickly and on a grand scale. The author's ability to capture this small slice of time and the winds of change (and at the end, the horrors of trench warfare) is what makes this book an incredible read.
Personally, I liked this book and was rather caught up throughout the story, but I did feel that the end was a bit rushed, as if Byatt had to come up with an ending rather quickly. However, I would definitely recommend the book to people interested not only in excellent writing, but in Britain from the end of the Victorian period through the end of WWI. Overall, a fine reading experience.
I very nearly abandoned this amazing book early on. The first couple of chapters were great - totally engaging - but then Byatt chose a midsummer party to introduce a crazy amount of characters. Their families were all interlinked in some way, and it was important to know who was who, and for a good hundred pages I grew tired of continually flicking back to the party scene to remind myself who was related to who and how. Why the editors didn't think a short character guide at the start of the book would be useful is beyond me.
The 'children's book' (or rather a collection of children's books the author character writes for her children) is really quite a minor part of the book. This is a sweeping, complex, intellectual family saga of sorts, telling the interconnecting stories of 6 English families from the late Victorian era up to WWI.
Art - in the form of ceramics and dark fairy story writing - is an important backdrop to this novel, as well as intellectual and political thought from the era. I feared that this might be a book that tries too hard to be "intellectual" and ends up irritating me, but by the end this was one of the things I loved most about it. Byatt's depth of research is simply vast, and this novel fuelled a continual thirst for knowledge in me simply because she made all these backdrop reference points so interesting. In between reads I was Googling everything from Palissy pottery to the Fabian Society to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, as she brought them to life so well. In fact, this book is so well researched it's difficult to believe at times that this isn't a novel written during that period.
It's a complex book with a lot of depth, but the characters are fabulous and I was hooked right up to the end. In fact I spent a good bit of the last 50 pages wiping away tears.
If you enjoy writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, or McEwan's Atonement, or even the likes of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, then I think you'll enjoy this.
5 stars - easily this will be my book of the year (even if it is only April). A modern classic.
The revelation to me is the radicalism these people bring to their lives and the society in which they live. This was clearly a time of great change, of great revolution in society and technology and politics and thought and mores. People embraced that change, made an accommodation with it or found themselves adrift and unable to cope
Byatt is a very class act. She writes with a density pretty much unrivalled, describing the Edwardian world, clothes, food, daily life with a dizzying level of detail. None of this gets in the way of the readability of the novel nor of the intense focus on the inner lives of the people involved.
This is a classy book that addresses great truths by offering a look into a world that most never understood existed. Read it.
It's a little hard to categorise this novel, although family saga probably comes closest. It concerns the lives of two generations of two branches of an upper middle class family called the Wellwoods and their friends and associates between the 1890s and 1918. To the extent that there is a central character, it is Olive Wellwood, apparently loosely based on Edith Nesbit. Olive and most of her family and her circle are part of the arts and craft movement which was so important in late Victorian Britain. Some of them are also Fabians, one is an anarchist and one a suffragette. Through them Byatt tries to capture the decline in Victorian certainties and the new assertiveness and aggression of those who wished to challenge the status quo.
I've not read anything by Byatt before and was struck by just how good her writing is, particularly on subjects that others often find difficult. She writes really astutely on character and motivation and is able to get inside the heads of adolescents in particular. There are also some beautiful descriptions of works of are, particularly of pottery - somehow Byatt really makes you appreciate the variation in glazes even if you can't see them . I'd love to go around a museum (preferably the Victoria & Albert) with her.
The book is a little over researched and there are quite lengthy asides on bits of social history - suffragettes, the arts and crafts movements, Edwardian children's fictions etc - which I quite liked but do break up the story and may not be everyone's cup of tea. That aside, I'd say this is the best modern novel I've read since starting this challenge.
Beautiful cover as well.
There is a lot of story here, yet the book is not plot-driven. It's not character-driven either: most of the characterization is impressionistic. The prose is unassumingly good, and dramatic episodes are rendered very quietly. I think the book is idea-driven, and dream-driven to an extent. Motifs of underground pervade the book, from the museum basement where Phillip is first discovered searching for Art, to Olive's fantasy story for her son Tom, and finally to the trenches of World War I. Fairy tales are used to convey both romantic illusion and grim nightmare. I think that Byatt is limning the end of England's self-absorbed faux innocence as it is forced into modernity.
Byatt, whose sister Margaret Drabble is also a successful novelist, certainly knows a great deal about unhappy families with sibling rivalries. She also has clearly been thinking a lot about the significance of children's literature, particularly in the English tradition of the late 19th century. (She has gone on record with some fairly harsh criticism of J.K. Rowling's contemporary work in that genre.) In some ways, "The Children's Book" is a kind of serious reflection upon the lure of childish-ness which attracted so many in the era of Peter Pan - and continues to do so in our era of the Disney Empire and Harry Potter.
Rather than focus upon a single character - or even two, or four - here Byatt is interested upon an entire generation of young people, born in the 1880s and 90s and raised in the heyday of the late Victorian Empire. It's a collective family saga - and you'll probably need to take copious notes to sort out all the characters and their intricate relationships. (It doesn't help matters when several of their names are similar - Geraint and Gerald, for example. Some of the names seem fairly improbable: Griselda? Imogen? Perdita?)
There is also a great deal in this book about some of the "minor" arts of the era, particularly ceramics and puppetry. Interesting certainly, but I'm not sure quite how the developing craft of pottery fits into the theme of childhood and family relationships.
A few major historical figures from the period (Oscar Wilde, Marie Stopes, Loie Fuller) have small walk-on parts. There is one scene of the novel that takes place at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, and later the focus shifts for a while to artistic and bohemian Munich. Nice to see an English historical novel with some interest in contemporary European affairs! Some of the characters are early stalwarts of the movement for women's rights. One becomes a female doctor, another a suffragette. Other female characters face difficult decisions about sexuality, pregnancy and marriage. Really, this could be a quite good book to use in a history class - if only it weren't so long!
It is difficult to offer a coherent critique of this book because it goes off in so many directions. A loose baggy monster indeed! It probably would have worked better if some of the subsidiary characters and plots and themes and historical developments had been cut back - or cut out. Or maybe this should have become a multi-volume saga! There are certainly enough elements in the story that remind me of one of those stately Masterpiece Theatre series!
I suspect that this book probably drove many of its readers a little mad because so much of its plot is buried in its story, but I loved that about it. Byatt uses the period as a large stage set that her characters move through, much like the marionette show in the opening chapters of the novel. The time period is the story, the people and the relationships between them are in their own way as decorative as the pure white pottery glaze developed by Palissy (which is in its own sense a fairy story). In a way, these are all the bits and pieces that add up to a particular kind of fairy tale where the setting is as much a character as the goblins and kobolds.
The Edwardian era has always seemed like the golden, perfect summer and fall before the long gray winter of World War I and this novel really captures that. There were large chunks of the last third of the novel that made me cry and by the end I'll admit that I was sobbing. Byatt is as ruthless with her setting and her characters as the trenches were to their inhabitants and that has a powerful resonance.
This novel is long and demanding. It requires your full and undivided attention and your commitment, but the returns are in staggering beauty.
It took me about 200 pages to really get into the novel. At nearly 700 pages, this is a time investment. I have to admit that early on, I nearly gave up. The numerous characters initially were hard to keep up with and the novel switched between so many that it was hard to connect with most of them at first. Additionally the novel is often bogged down in minute detail; I'd have gladly traded a few descriptive passages for greater character development in the early part of the book. Byatt is clearly very knowledgeable about her history and intersperses historical detail throughout the novel. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse for the story. It helps to set the lives of the characters in the appropriate cultural context, but it somehow it doesn't feel woven in. Rather, the historical bits read like a nonfiction book, and it's somewhat jarring to move from fictional story, to nonfiction history lesson, and back again.
Those are the drawbacks. There were also a lot of rewards to the novel that made me glad I had kept reading. The novel is rich with symbolism and beautiful prose. Byatt effectively captures the feelings of the Victorian era and the shattering of innocence as the world erupts into the first World War. The battle scenes are gut-wrenching. Several of the characters do, eventually, move into the forefront with compelling stories and relationships. There are secrets and intrigue. There is also a significant exploration of what it means to be both a creative person and a parent--particularly a mother, and what it is to be the child of a genius. Women's rights are addressed and some of the characters feel required to choose between conventional female roles and dreams of scholarship. Byatt is most successful at providing a vast panorama of a world on the verge of complete and irrevocable change.
Overall I'm glad I read it. It was somewhat like climbing a very high mountain--parts were almost excruciating, parts were awe-inspiring, but the view from the top did make it worth it at the end. It just would have been nice to have less of a struggle getting there, which could have been accomplished with a bit more conciseness.
I stuck with it because the subject matter and time period interests me enormously - artists/intellectuals/bourgeois moving from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. Family history is my secret vice and that aspect of the novel intrigued me too. I think that the novel would be well served in future editions by some attempt at a family tree or at least a list of characters to remind the reader of who's who.
A.S. Byatt had a kernel of an idea (like her heroine Olive Wellwood) which she fleshed out into a somewhat corpulent work. It's not a disinteresting idea. It's about what we choose to tell children and what we don't....and how they muddle through anyway, informed or misinformed about who they are and their place in the world. We tell them "fairy" tales that upon deeper analysis are often heavily coded horror stories. The truth is often hard to tell and also hard to write. A.S. Byatt, I have no doubt, has researched her characters and time period very well. And yes, sometimes there are sermons from the mount or little lectures about periods in this history which miss their mark I find.
But the characters were well formed and interesting and I did want to know what happened to each and every one of the children - only sometimes I got lost along the way and wished I wasn't lost and that my hand had been held tighter and there wasn't so much extraneous stuff.
PS. I reckon I found an error at the top of the page on page 65 of the Chatto and Windus version - "Basil and Olive, fairy kind and fairy queen, spoke the golden speeches of blessing on married men and women, on chidlren born and unborn." Doesn't she mean Humphrey? Or am I still very confused???
Excellent, thick, satisfying read, following the fortunes of a group of interconnected families from the 1880s through WWI. As usual, Byatt is very good at tying in the social/economic/cultural movements of history with the personal lives of her characters - there is a real feeling of the march of history in this - and she works in some of her genre-mimicking work too. Good on women's expanding lives and the increased ability to cross class boundaries, and on the pull between motherhood and creativity. And all these people strive against the patterns they were born into, only to come up against the monolithic horror of War. The war sections were horrific - and so they should have been.
I did get a Murdochian feel about this - the mixed characters and particularly the role of stones in the book - I wonder whether that was deliberate.
Overall, a good read but I felt like an observer peering in from afar as a group of actors fumble their way through their roles.
Overall, I don't think I'd recommend this to anyone who I didn't really know would enjoy it.
Those are my complaints. It is, nevertheless, a marvelous book. While the large cast may keep us from seeing anyone's high moments, it does enable us to see what life was like at the time for a broad array of people. Byatt is more interested in social and political activism, so the cast is broader in political views than in class: this is not Downton Abbey with half the time spent upstairs and half the time spent down.
I'm glad I read it, and I think Byatt's synthesis of culture in an historical context is awesome. But the unrelenting misery of all the characters means this is a deeply unhappy book even before you get to the war.
That out of the way, this is one of those book that has many different layers, takes place over the year of several decades, incorporates a ton of history and has many, many different characters.
'Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, interviewed with her children gathered at her knee. For each, she writes a private book, bound in its own colour and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh the children play in a storybook world — but their lives, and those of their rich cousins and friends, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries its own secrets.'
This summary does not even begin to tell what this book is about. I'm not feeling particularly deep at the moment, but I will be as thorough as I can.
At times I felt as though despite that hoard of characters that showed up in The Children's Book, this was not a character driven book. There were a few chapters that did not even include a single character. These chapters felt like they were take out of a history book. It was great to learn about this era - the end of the Victorian era and Edwardian era - but sometimes I was just not in the mood. It felt like Byatt tried to cram as much history as she could. The characters themselves were used to show how the world was changing during this time. The great thing was that you saw the world through different perspectives: upper and lower class; male and female. The Children's Book mostly followed the children as they grew up, but also showed the lives of the adults, in a way so you could understand why the children ended up the way they did.
I didn't particularly have a favorite character because I felt, in a way, that all the characters were out of reach. We never really got to 'know' any of them. We saw them grow up, make bad decisions, fall victim to the times, and fight against society, but we were never able to get too close to them. Still, as events unfolded, I felt sorry for a number of them, particularly at the end, which takes place during WWI.
The Children's Book didn't strike me as wonderful or horrible; it's one of those books that, for me, hits somewhere in the middle.