How to begin to talk about The Children’s Book? In light of its epic proportions, writing it a review seems an almost impossible task.
A. S. Byatt’s magical masterpiece is the story of a sprawling extended family living in Edwardian times. It is impossible to give you a summary of the plot and to do the book justice so I won’t even try. Instead, I will simply say that the book covers everything: childhood, family, secrecy, infidelity, friendship, war, love and death.
It is never glib, never simplistic, especially – to my delight, when it comes to the subject of childhood. The childhood of the Wellwood children is touched by magic – but it is real magic, mysterious and frightening, as well as alluring – not the sentimental stuff we talk about now when we talk of childhood. Oh, the book has golden summers, deliciously cool lakes and fairytales but Byatt doesn’t shy away from misery either. From Tom’s horrific experiences at boarding school to Hedda’s shock discovery about the state of her parent’s marriage, childhood is never passed off as idyllic in The Children’s Book – even if it appears that way at first glance. Malice, death and even suicide feature here. The children are, in in their own distinct ways, full of fear and indignation.
Even the book’s matriarch, Olive Wellwood, gregarious fairytale writer and heart of the Wellwood household, is no saint- the flaws in her parenting and personality are there for all to see. It made me wonder if Byatt feels, as Olive does, that once named, her characters take on lives of their own – that they have distinct personalities that persist in spite of the fates she might have planned for them. Perhaps that is why it’s so easy to become invested in her characters. They’re so real you feel you could reach out and slap them (and in the case of Herbert Methley, I found that idea quite appealing).
It would be remiss to suggest that this is just a story about a family. It takes in everything that is going on in turn-of-the-century England: the art, the politics, the agitation for women’s rights, the social shifts – all leading up to the horror of World War One.
Because Byatt’s characterisation is so strong, it is horrifying to watch the Wellwood children and their peers, now adults, going off to the battlefield. The book is long and the print is small so by the time you get to the war you really feel that you’ve watched them all grow up. You feel that quasi-parental sense of foreboding. You’re desperate for your favourites to come back alive. More than anything, you’re struck by the sheer scale of the devastation, of death, that was the reality for the people who were living and fighting in those times.
All in all, I think that if you were imprisoned for ten years and were only allowed one book with you in your cell, you could do worse than to choose The Children’s Book. I don’t doubt that I’ll take it down off my shelf again one day and I know that it would probably improve with every read.
Despite these excellent qualities though, I can’t say that the book was perfect. For me, it was a little dense and there were a few dry patches when Byatt seemed so spellbound by the subject of her research that we were treated to too much description about the design of this brooch or the glaze of that pot. It’s perhaps unfair to criticise her in this way as I know that some readers love that kind of detail, but for me it was just a little overdone, perhaps even bordering on the pedantic. Even so, I concede that if Byatt didn’t have such a keen eye for detail or that burning desire to give the fullest possible picture, the rest of the story would be the weaker for it.
Without a doubt, this is the kind of book that makes you want to burn your notepad, in the certainty that you could never write anything remotely as good, as complete or as moving. The Children’s Book is an epic in every sense of the word and A. S. Byatt is, quite simply, a queen of English literature.