The Children’s Book

By A. S. Byatt

The Short Take:

Reading this brilliantly complex book is a humbling experience. Alongside the wonder and delight one feels as the novel unfolds — weaving the stories of children from different families; there is the amazing amount of background information that gives you a solid sense of time and place — England from the waning of the Victorian age through World War 1.


Novels often encompass a very limited world, strictly defined by the characters, their immediate surroundings, and their intimate experiences. Not so The Children’s Book. Anarchists, suffragists, the trials of Dreyfus and Wilde, the original production of Peter Pan, the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, neo-paganism, the Boer War, socialism, William Morris — these are just a few of the myriad influences that shape and reshape Byatt’s characters. It’s as real-world a novel as I think I have ever read.

The humbling part is how little I knew about the complex social and cultural tensions and concerns of these times. In fact, as a result of this book, I have a whole list of topics I want to explore further. For me, this is the ultimate gift from a writer — a book I can truly savor as a literary work that also piques my curiosity and expands my understanding of the human story.

Then there is the central theme of the book — the difference (or possibly the sameness) between fantasy and reality. The writing and performance of fairly tales contrasts with the desire for sweeping socialist reforms in the real world. Or maybe they are one and the same? Certainly the families in this novel all have incorporated fairy tales into their personal narratives.

Some people may find descriptions of different lectures on topics like social issues or the origins of myths tedious to read. Don’t feel like you have to absorb every line fully. These speeches and references are important to the story but you can grasp their gist even if, like me, you are sometimes confused by what they mean (I will learn more, though!).

This book is rich in everything — character development, writing, plot, background. Yum.

A Little Plot:

The children (and some of the parents) of six (more or less) families form the nucleus of this epic story. And they aren’t all the characters that inhabit this novel. Don’t let that daunt you. Byatt gently moves the focus of her book from one character to another in a graceful flow that keeps you from being overwhelmed by names and relationships.

The large and happy family of Humphrey and Olive Wellwood link all the other characters. She is a successful writer of fairy tales. He is a budding socialist and member of the Fabian Society. They surround themselves with artists, intellectuals, political activists, and other intriguing characters. The growing up years of their children — and the children of their family and friends — are all influenced by these visitors and lecturers, but no two in the same exact way.

As the children move from their teens to adulthood, they experience uncertainties, tragedies, successes, and the revelation that some of their closest held truisms were actually fantasies. But that’s all the information you’re getting here. Just read the book. It’s a great way to start off this year. Or any year.

For more about A. S. Byatt, this book and others click here.

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