From Publishers Weekly
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.)
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Gorgeously stuffed? Or overstuffed? Critics were clearly split on Byatt's latest offering. Several enthusiastically praised The Children's Book as a stunning literary achievement, a thinking person's novel, and the most noteworthy of Byatt's books since Possession was published almost 20 years ago. Others argued that, while Byatt is adept at richly evoking the Edwardian era, the book stumbles under the weight of its own excess. Too many characters, too many scandalous events, too many puppet shows, and too many passages on social history caused the exhausted critic from the Houston Chronicle to state: "Even the dirty parts ... seem to drag." Overall, however, The Children's Book is a worthy novel for dedicated Byatt fans who like their tomes dense, descriptive, and multilayered.
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