The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is a novel about several English families and their lives from 1895 through to the end of the First World War. The novel centers around Olive Wellwood, a writer of fairy tales, and her group of friends, who are artists, writers and bankers, and all of their children.
This novel traces the lives of these people in detail, especially the children, who must grow up and make choices in love, their careers, their study and they must decide who they want to be. All the while Byatt explores the social and political state of the world and the impact this has on them. Their stories have links with socialism, the anarchist movement, nascent feminism, the suffragette movement, the theatre and world of artists in this period of time – focusing much on potters and playwrights.
The narrative jumps between characters, tracing their individuals lives (which often cross paths), and at the same time Olive Wellwood continues to write, not only stories she has published, but private stories, one for each of her children, bound in separate colourful notebooks, which are theirs only to read.
Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, interviewed with her children gathered at her knee. For each of them she writes a separate private book, bound in different colours and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh they play in a storybook world – but their lives, and those of their rich cousins, children of a city stockbroker, and their friends, the son and daughter of a curator at the new Victorian and Albert Museum, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries it’s own secrets.Into their world comes a young stranger, a working-class boy from the potteries; and in midsummer a German puppeteer arrives, bringing dark dramas. This vivid, rich and moving saga is played out against the great, rippling tides of the day, taking us from the Kent marshes to Paris and Munich, and the trenches of the Somme. Born at the end of the Victorian era, growing up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, a whole generation grew up unaware of the darkness ahead. In their innocence, they were betrayed inintentionally by the adults who loved them. In a profound sense, this novel is indeed the children’s book.
Beginning in a fairy tale like setting of Todefright (Olive Wellwood’s home) at a midsummer party, with much laughter and ending with the full tragic impact of World War One, this story looks at how life always changes and it never takes the path that we dream it will when we are young.
This is an epic book at 617 pages long. Just when you start to feel bogged down in things like politics and banking (relating to the life path one of the children chose), Byatt changes the tone with a story and adds a fantasy world. I must admit I found some parts of this novel tedious ,such as the long descriptions of pottery and potters, but the story of the children, how they must grow up and change, is really interesting, especially as learn to navigate their way into adulthood.
At times this book is tragic and full of suffering, but Byatt attempts to end with hope. This is definitely not a light read but well worth your time if you are interested in Edwardian England and long family sagas.