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376 of 388 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Anyone Would Think I Was A Changeling..."
This is an immensely difficult book to review, simply because the vast majority of casual readers probably *won't* automatically enjoy "The Children's Book." It is a dense, complex, ambitious, challenging novel that is not so much a story as it is a detailed portrait of a family, a community and an era. Stretching from 1895 to 1919 and set predominantly in the Kent...
Published on August 19, 2009 by R. M. Fisher

85 of 91 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This One Wasn't For Me... But The Right Reader Will Likely Love It
Before selecting this novel I read the many reviews that said this book wouldn't be for everyone, that it had extensively detailed descriptions and a meandering plot line with a rather unsatisfying ending. And even knowing all of that I still wanted to give it a try. I love details upon details and thought that maybe I would be the right reader for this book...
Published on October 31, 2009 by Barbarino

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376 of 388 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Anyone Would Think I Was A Changeling...", August 19, 2009
R. M. Fisher "Ravenya" (New Zealand = Middle Earth!) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
This is an immensely difficult book to review, simply because the vast majority of casual readers probably *won't* automatically enjoy "The Children's Book." It is a dense, complex, ambitious, challenging novel that is not so much a story as it is a detailed portrait of a family, a community and an era. Stretching from 1895 to 1919 and set predominantly in the Kent countryside, A.S. Byatt's saga contains no central character or predominant plotline; instead it chronicles the historical, cultural and social context of the Victorian/Edwardian period and the effect it has on three families and their assorted associates.

Humphrey and Olive Wellwood live in an idyllic cottage called Todefright, where they host midsummer parties and watch as their brood of children (with special emphasis on their two eldest Tom and Dorothy) play in the sun. Olive is a successful children's writer, seeking new inspiration from Prosper Cain, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who in turn has two children: Julian and Florence. Connecting these two families with the third is Philip Warren, a lower-class runaway hiding in the museum, who is discovered by Tom and Julian and sent to become an apprentice to Benedict Fludd, a manic potter who lives with his vague, inert daughters, Imogen and Pomona. Secrets abound in each household: infidelities, political agendas, hidden pasts, simmering hatreds and changeling children.

At the book's core are the various relationships between parents and children; whether they be foster parents, illegitimate children, unwanted pregnancies, secret parentages, or even a play on the term that artists often use in referring to their work as "their children." In most cases, it is this need to *create* that drives the characters, and how that which is created can be exploited, betrayed or destroyed. Olive tries to reach her children through personalized fairytales, whilst simultaneously drawing on them for inspiration; in a much darker version of this somewhat parasitical relationship, Fludd pulls creativity out of his daughters in a horrific way, and is forced to conceal the finished products. Creativity seems to have a destructive force, both on the artist and the muse, just as the parent neglects or preys on the lives of the younger generation.

The consequences are dire: Tom is caught in stasis between childhood and adulthood; Imogen and Pomona are reduced to listless, lifeless shells. In their turn, all the children of the novel grow from the innocence of childhood into gradual disillusionment and frustration as they experience their awakening to the world; most having been emotionally, mentally and physically sapped by the older generation. The inevitability of the WWI on the horizon comes almost (and oddly) as a relief.

As always, Byatt's distinctive prose is beautifully rendered, and used to its best effect when dealing with the thoughts and ideas of the extensive cast. The sentences are short and somewhat choppy, lending them an immediacy and spontaneity that initially feels too abrupt, but soon becomes natural. The narrative flows in and out of different minds, and point of views switch from character to character mid-paragraph, and sometimes even mid-sentence. It all gives off the impression that the reader is an intimate and yet distant observer to these people's lives; privy to their day-to-day occurrences and yet cut off from several of the darkest secrets which are eluded to, but never elaborated on in their entirety. We are given glimpses into their secret worlds, but no clear answers.

Although the sheer number of characters is rather overwhelming at first, I felt a slow but steady pull into their lives, regarding who they are and what shaped them: be it other family members, the art that they create, or the period of history they live in. I've seen this book described as a "cultural study" and that's a fairly succinct way of putting it. An author of historical fiction has the task of making the past come alive, and I think Byatt succeeds in making her characters relatable to a contemporary audience, whilst still keeping them products of their time in terms of their expectations, thought-patterns and behaviour. The Victorian era was a period of stifling repression and the inevitable uprising that followed, as movements of the anarchists and suffragettes stir things up, and the ideologies of sexuality and class differences up-heave the social norms.

Byatt examines how this political backdrop of the artistic and political life of Europe can affect a single individual, and in this effort she certainly shows her research. There are huge blocks of information and exposition that detail the historical context that the characters inhabit, with extensive commentary on political issues, vast tracts of dialogue from speeches on various ideologies, and short appearances from the likes of J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde.

This is where "The Children's Book" will divide viewers. It is a slow-paced, meandering read, told in excessive detail. There is not an outfit, a meal, a puppet show, or a work of art that goes by without it being described down to the last nuance. To be honest: yes, it *does* detract from the story. In order for the reader not to miss the contextual symbolism and thematic depth, Byatt makes sure to list ALL of it, and much of the detail on clothing and architecture is simply superfluous. Many unprepared readers might find themselves rushing through the details in order to get to a plot that simply isn't coming. For better or worse, the details ARE the plot, linked inextricably with the character studies and the overarching subject matter.

Needless to say, some readers will be more patient than others. The family drama is infinitely more interesting than the history lesson, but toward the end of the novel, both aspects start to tally up to the same page-count. I have to admit, I skimmed at times.

Another aspect worth mentioning is that the blurb is somewhat misleading in its mention of WWI, accidentally giving off the impression that the war is a significant part of the book. In actuality, the war begins when the story is about to close: although several closing chapters provide details on the fates of various characters during the fighting, it swiftly skips ahead to a post-war coda. That is not to say that the war segment is mishandled (it is tragically appropriate given the way the "children" of the title meet their futures), only that the book description gives the war more attention than it probably should. Rest assured, this is *not* a war story.

There also seems to be a growing tendency to compare this book favourably with Byatt's most famous novel: Possession: A Romance, with the general assertion being: "if you liked "Possession", you'll love "The Children's Book!" This advertising gimmick is another misnomer. It does not necessarily follow that if you enjoyed the previous, you'll like the latter. Though it is written in the same delicate style and with the same reliance on fairytales and myths to provide thematic resonance, "Possession" was essentially a romance and a historical mystery. "The Children's Book" is quite different, with vastly different aims in mind, and whereas "Possession" closed on hope and bittersweetness, this book is markedly more subdued and desultory.

I feel as though I haven't given this a "good" review when in actuality I immensely enjoyed this novel. I was moved by the characters, fascinated by the style and intrigued by much (though not all) of the detail. It is however, most certainly not for everyone; it demands your full attention, as well as a heck of a lot of patience that some may feel is tested on a novel that not only takes its time, but which concludes on a rather open, indecisive note. Hopefully this review will help you decide whether or not it's for *you*.
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95 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 675 wondrous pages, October 10, 2009
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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Reading A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" is much like reading a 19th century novel; you read it the way you lose yourself in a densely plotted story by Trollope or Hardy. The first three sections ("Beginnings, "The Age of Gold," "The Age of Silver") span the period from around 1895 to just before World War I, from the end of Victoria's reign through the Edwardian era. The shorter last section ("The Age of Lead") includes the war itself, although from the moment the novel opens you know, just by looking at the birth dates, that all the boys growing into young men will come to suffer terribly. "The Children's Book" is historical fiction, and many real life characters pass through its pages, including Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman, and G.B. Shaw. One of the central characters, the children's writer Olive Wellwood, whose idyllic home "Todefright" is where much of the "Age of Gold" is set, is based (according to an interview Byatt gave to "New York Times" reporter Charles McGrath) on the writer E. Nesbit, and other characters are also loosely based on real lives.

However, it is not just the characters that make this novel compelling. Byatt wants you to feel how different this time period is from our own, although it's hardly distant. Olive's children run free through a kind of children's paradise. Their elders attend earnest lectures on the "Woman Question" and on the plight of the poor. Time moves slowly, before the invention of the motorcar. Female dress (described in lush detail by Byatt) dazzles, even as it conceals the ankles. Literature for children becomes an art form. Byatt's attention to detail is astonishing: the world of pottery, the world of folklore, the worldview of the Fabians. At the same time, glimmers of the twentieth century worlds to come are visible in this novel: the concentration camps of the Boer War; anarchism and socialism; suffrage; Freud and the unconscious; new ideas about sexuality. Olive's daughter Dorothy pushes through one obstacle after another to become a physician; her cousin Griselda seeks out the attenuated university education, with its absurd and rigid social rules, that is the only form of higher learning available to her; her brother Charles/Karl is drawn to radical politics.

Many reviews, including published ones, have mentioned the book's length. By that standard, if Dickens were alive, he'd have to re-invent himself as a blogger in order to be read at all. Another concern seems to be the novel's prodigious presentation of information on everything from pottery glazes to the Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris. I'd argue that it's all that information that allows you to feel, as a reader, transported--truly transported-- to a different time. When you put down these densely packed pages, you feel like you've inhabited the same space as the characters, at least for a bit.

Thus, to read "The Children's Book" is to be carried off into a world that is unfamiliar, a complicated world that looks backward to a pre-industrial world of beautiful pots and glazes, of secret treehouses and marionettes, even as it looks forward to new lives for women and the poor and to a different understanding of sexuality. In Byatt's telling, the years of "The Children's Book" seem like a kind of dress rehearsal for the twentieth century. Opening night, however, takes place on the Somme.
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85 of 91 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This One Wasn't For Me... But The Right Reader Will Likely Love It, October 31, 2009
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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Before selecting this novel I read the many reviews that said this book wouldn't be for everyone, that it had extensively detailed descriptions and a meandering plot line with a rather unsatisfying ending. And even knowing all of that I still wanted to give it a try. I love details upon details and thought that maybe I would be the right reader for this book.

Sadly I was wrong, this book was not for me. I thought that the story started out interestingly enough, I enjoyed the scene in the museum with the children. I also enjoyed imagining the setting for the Midsummer celebration with the costumes and the Chinese lanterns. And my interest was peaked by the allusion to the sexual undercurrent between so many of the characters.

But the introduction of over thirty characters in the first one hundred pages was a bit overwhelming. As were the many references to the social and political groups unifying and dividing people during Victorian times. While I thought much of the information was interesting it was just too much all at once for this reader.

I think someone who is very familiar with specifics of the Victorian period would probably enjoy this book. For me it was just overwhelming and there wasn't a thread of suspense or intrigue that compelled me to continue reading the story. I didn't feel invested to find out what was going to happen and so I gave it up and didn't finish.

It's easy to see why some readers adore this novel and others not at all. I think this book will be enjoyed by a small cross section of the population. Unfortunately I am not among them.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A sprawling, messy novel, charming and insufferable by turns, October 15, 2009
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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It's hard not to feel that the dedication is a symptom of everything that's wrong with this sprawling novel of nearly 700 pages. The book is dedicated to its editor -- who, if she had done her job, probably would've left this ill-structured novel far better, three or four hundred pages shorter, and left its author less glowingly happy with her.

This is an emphatically historical novel, dealing with late-Victorian childhood and young adulthood; indeed it seems to have been written in order to put forth a historical argument about the uniqueness of late-Victorian childhood. The book's many children are, slowly, growing up in a bohemian middle-class milieu (there are working-class characters, but they are interlopers); the setting is saturated with Fabian socialism, Arts and Crafts creativity, and fairytales. Four households receive full attention -- most central are the many children of Olive and Humphry Wellwood, a children's book writer and a banker-cum-muckraker who live in a seeming semi-rural Arts and Crafts utopia; but we also spend time with the seemingly more conventional, wealthy family of Humphry's banker brother Basil Wellwood, and with the widowed, ex-military museum curator Prosper Cain and his hyper-cultured children; and there are also the Fludds, the brooding, damaged family of brilliant potter Benedict Fludd, along with some others who come to live with him and to fire their work in his kiln. (In toto there are something like fifteen children and eight adults just living in these plot-central families, and there are a myriad other minor and not-so-minor characters besides, each described and psychologized in turn; this is part of why "sprawling" seems the only appropriate adjective for the book.) Many of Byatt's characteristic charms and virtues are in full evidence here, as are her fixations and foibles: the book is, at times, a beautifully well-realized recreation of its historical setting, and it has a careful, intricate plot driven by the many children's loss of innocence and by the discovery of various unpleasant sexual secrets and misdeeds.

The plot's manifest neatness feels at times rather forced, and the traumatic secrets are telegraphed predictably enough, especially for readers who know Byatt's other work ("Morpho Eugenia" comes to mind especially often), but the book is always readable, and sometimes compelling, when its story is in full swing. As James Wood wrote in his perceptive review (in the London Review of Books), there is sometimes a glazed, too-easy feeling to the psychology of many of the characters and many of the predictable sexual revelations; in this book which is so tiresomely about pottery, many of the characters seem a bit potted themselves, more china dolls than fully realized people. But none of this, by itself, would make the novel anything less than enjoyable, another in the mold of Byatt's lesser works, all of which are still cracking good stories.

No, the real problem here is that much of the book has nothing at all to do with its story. There are occasional inserted "excerpts" from Olive Wellwood's children's books: these are fewer in number, but more haphazardly connected to the novel, and far more poorly pastiched, than the poetry in Possession. And worse still, the novel is packed full of windy, condescending didacticism about its historical setting, taking many pages to lecture down its nose at its reader on topics from pottery -- there's a lot of pottery -- to Peter Pan to the political causes of World War I. Perhaps a third of the total page count is given over to these insufferable lectures, which are often totally unconnected to the narrative of the book; but they are difficult to skip, because a reader won't know where they begin and end, and because the conscientious reader is troubled by the possibility that they might have more to do with the story than they seem. (They don't.) Instead of giving free rein to her donnish ambitions at the cost of bloating the novel, Byatt simply ought to have cut all this, and made her historical argument about the lost innocence of late-Victorian childhood elsewhere -- it would make a fine historical essay, perhaps even an appendix to the slim and readable novel that would've resulted from these severe and needed cuts.

There is a subtler problem, too, caused by the novel being built around a historical argument, or at least written in order to explore the topic of late-Victorian childhood. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.) There is a series of comedic happy endings, marriages and all (along with a few sadder resolved plotlines), and virtually every strand of the plot is more or less resolved quite a while before the book actually ends; but then, in a hasty hundred-page coda, we follow the characters, now youngish men and women, into the horrors of the Great War, and we watch many of them die, and the survivors emerge scarred. This would, of course, be a fine ending to such a novel, had it been telegraphed in advance; to know this were coming would've made the hazy, soft-focus nostalgia of the book's Victorian portion easier to bear. But instead, this ending's brutality feels abrupt and tacked-on, as though it were created to serve the book's historical thesis rather than its narrative -- as the story has already wrapped up successfully, in a happy-ending fashion that has more to do with the (conscious and unconscious!) childish Gothicism of the preceding novel. It's painful to read more because of its hasty, brusque, perfunctory narration than its sad content.

In short, this is a sprawling mess with a witty Gothic historical novel buried somewhere inside it, and it's certainly Byatt's worst full-length novel since The Shadow of the Sun. It's enough of a slog that I'd recommend it only to readers with an investment in the period depicted -- cultural historians of the fin-de-siècle, perhaps -- and to those who've loved everything Byatt produces enough to enjoy what they find of her virtues amid the unedited dross here. (And I count myself among that number.)
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small personal perspective, October 13, 2009
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This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
When I thought about reviewing The Children's Book I figured I'd take an intellectual tack, address the common complaint about excessive period detail in terms of Byatt's literary intentions and modern expectations about the scope of the novel. But other people have made those points, as well as I could have and probably better. So I'm going to do something different.

The back-and-forth in other reviews on Byatt's use of detail may create the impression that, for better or for worse, this will be a difficult book, the sort of thing that feels like work even for those who appreciate its intentions and admire its depth. For some readers this will of course be true. But others will have an experience like mine: loving The Children's Book for pure pleasure of reading, flying through 425 pages in a single day, staying up until 5:00 AM to finish the book and feeling emotionally devastated in the best possible way afterward.

The historical detail was part of this. One might get the impression from some of the reviews that Byatt just throws random facts in to show off that she's done a lot of research. In fact the detail, while extensive, is shaped by Byatt so that it both reveals the aspects of life in that era that interest her and works as literature. I haven't read enough novels with such ambition; it is, perhaps, out of vogue at present.

The characters are fascinating too. I fully respect that the novel's digressive structure makes it difficult for many readers to connect emotionally to the characters' dramas. I had no such trouble. I felt like their stories were worth waiting for, and that a greater superficial tightness of construction would damage their plausibility and undermine the sense of constant incipience that defines the lives of some children and young adults. It is this sense of the reality of the characters' lives that makes their encounter with the brutality of World War I all the more devastating. The thing with novels about war is that their characters are in some sense created to die-- it's hard to create a full sense of who they were and what they wanted from life before the war came. The sudden outbreak of the conflict fifty pages from the end of this 675 page book gives the war a shadow (what more can literature ever give) of its historical terror.

I see that these rambling remarks don't add up to much of a review. I hope they'll help someone nonetheless. Here's one more: in response to an interview question on how she wished to be read, Byatt observed in a general context that "Readers should be empowered to skip." If you're thinking about reading The Children's Book but are worried about its length or level of detail, take the plunge. If something bores you, skip it. It's better to read and enjoy part of a book than to fail to read all of it. I think Publishers Weekly was a bit silly in saying "Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel," but if you find you share that impression, feel free to dig around for it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing less than an Edwardian Epic, August 11, 2010
This review is from: The Children's Book (Paperback)
I savored this novel every evening for the 2 months or so that I chipped away at its formidable length. A.S. Byatt has written a whopping, inimitable masterpiece of a heavy handed Victorian England succumbing to the blithe, jaunty Edwardian era which in turn gives way to the disillusionment and terror of trench warfare and World War I. Byatt, so unapologetically erudite, gives us a labyrinthine novel that is both devastating and whimsical. It's full of complexity and contradictions, stories within stories, and an abundance of detail, both historical and literary, so that people and objects d' art almost become palpable.

Byatt can be a bit pedantic at times, and in this work she is often overly descriptive and uses authorial elucidation too much, so that it seems she's doing our research work for us, especially with regard to historical background. Generally, though, her lavish descriptions and exposition work because we're invited, through her garrulity, to live in this world she has built and conjure it according to her exact instructions. Moreover, when she interrupts her narrative fervor it is always exposition concerning historical and social mileposts or facts about the arts and crafts movement, art noveau and pottery. It's pardonable, perhaps appropriate, because so much of the novel centers around modernization --- the shift in art and politics away from Victorian values to modernist art and liberal politics. There are so many beautiful sentences in The Children's Book and the narrative brims with flesh and blood characters and ideas one can mull over and over, that she more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Suffice it to say that, in my humble opinion, she has created nothing less than an Edwardian epic. As in Possession, Byatt fully displays her considerable academic talents. In this work, she writes pastiches of World War I poems and victorian children's tales. The novel is so brilliantly infused with fairy tales and children's literature ranging from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and ETA Hoffman to J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame that I'm still, weeks after finishing, working out the intertextuality. Fairy stories, allusions, and sinister tales of children simply inundate the reader. Through the German marionette master, Anselm Stern, Byatt alludes to the darker force of fairy stories, and art in general, a force that will eventually lead to the death of one of the characters. It is also through Stern and his family that Byatt presents German English relations on the eve of WWI and delves into the avante-garde German art and political scene.

At the heart of the novel are five families and a cast of dozens, tied together in various ways (blood, art, friendship, politics). Byatt traces their lives and entanglements through more than twenty years and several locales, evoking the effervescence of the 1900 Paris World's Fair, the haunting loneliness of Romney Marsh and Dungeness, the bustle of London, the subversive edges of Bavaria, and finally, the killing fields of Belgium.

Vivacious and attractive Olive Wellwood, a children's author and mother of seven (modeled after E. Nesbitt [remember Five Children and It?:]), is at first the central focus of the work, but Byatt regularly shifts between the families and deftly illuminates the lives of both parents and children. Olive and her husband Humphrey Wellwood are socially progressive Fabians, intellectuals, writers, and proponents-not-quite-agitators for social justice,and through them Byatt portrays the complexities of marriage, sexuality, what it means to be a father and what constitutes motherhood. The Wellwoods are also a vehicle for the author to explore the dissonance between creativity and family life, the destructive toll of creativity and art, as well as the melding of the political with the personal. Byatt fleshes out the eldest Wellwood children, the Peter Pan-like Tom who never wants to grow up; serious, tenacious Dorothy; and violent suffragette Hedda, while glossing over the rest of the brood. Olive gives each child a fairy story of his/her own that is obviously an allegory for the child's life.

As a foil for Olive and Humphrey's exuberant family, Byatt gives us Humphrey's brother and sister-in-law: the London Wellwoods --- Basil, a banker and Katharina,a wealthy German heiress, along with their children Charles/Karl and Griselda. Basil and Katharina are everything Olive and Humphrey are not: concerned with social conventions, conservative, wealthy, and part of the old Victorian establishment. Charles and Griselda, though, rebel against their parents' ideals and dabble in feminism, anarchy, and socialism. Through Charles/Karl, especially, Byatt develops a theme dealing with hidden identities, masked identities and transformation, as Charles becomes the anarchist Karl.

There is the disturbing and tragic Fludd family, with their laudnum-addicted, vacuous mother and (in)famously bizarre, brilliant, and wanton sculptor father who damages his daughters, Pomona and Imogen, in countless cruel ways. Geraint, the oldest sibling of the family, manages to escape the marshes and dilapidated Fludd home, entrenching himself in the London world of finance. Patriarch and artist Benedict, like Olive Wellwood, embodies the dangerous self-absorption and self-destruction art can engender. His brand of fatherhood squarely aligns him with Bluebeard or the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, but throughout the novel Humphrey, Prosper Cain, and other male characters will, to varying degrees, echo this characterization.

In juxtaposition to Benedict Fludd is Major Prosper Caine, a curator at the South Kensington (Victoria and Albert) Museum in London, and an expert in the decorative arts, who befriends the Wellwoods and Fludds. He is the embodiment of Victorian chivalry and philanthropy, and it is his charitable actions that often advance the plot. Seemingly the deus ex machina of the story, he is perhaps a bit contrived. Prosper's daughter and son become part of the cast of children that fill the novel, as readers watch them all move from the buoyant naivete of childhood into hapless adulthood.

One of the best threads in this novel involves Philip Warren (and eventually his sister, Elsie), apprentice and heir to Benedict Fludd, and an escapee from poverty and the lead-filled air of the potteries. Although the Victorians invented the concept of childhood, the notion that children were developmentally different from adults and should be allowed to play, explore, roam about and speak freely applied only to middle and upper class children. In The Children's Book, Philip and Elsie (and Olive and Violet, by means of flashbacks) are the only glimpse readers get of what childhood is like for impoverished Victorian children. In a notable and poignant opening scene, Cain's son Julian and Olive's son Tom catch Philip in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (where he has been sleeping for weeks) with a stack of expertly rendered drawings of the museum' holdings. Eventually, upon discovering Philip's unparalleled talent with pottery, Olive and Major Cain install him with the Fludd family, where he promptly makes improvements in Benedict's pottery studio, working his way up to master craftsmen and artist.

Philip's sister Elsie eventually runs away from the potteries and joins him at the Fludd's home, and becomes a focus of Byatt's narrative primarily due to her relationship with Herbert Methley, (modeled on, it seems, the promiscuous Mr. H.G. Wells) a lubricious libertine who has a knack for impregnating young women. Elsie's redemption comes in the form of her very own fairy godmothers, three women from around the marshes who help her become an independent Edwardian "New Woman" in the vein of Ibsen or G.B. Shaw.

And so the story goes. And goes. All the way to Belgium and the machine guns and trenches and mass casualties of World War I. Our Edwardian summer is over; the children have been sacrificed, marching to war for the fairy tale ideals of honor, country, duty, and glory.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A SUPERIOR (BUT LONG) NOVEL, October 4, 2009
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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I hadn't read Byatt before, I'm not sure why not, and I approached this novel with trepidation. It's long at 675 pages. There are so many characters in it. The plot spans almost two and a half decades in time, from 1895 to 1919, and the narration breaks off periodically, interrupted by (1) sometimes quite wordy discourses on pottery, puppeteering and the theater, (2) chapter-long summaries of what's happening in the large world at any particular time, and (3) chapter-length extracts from children's stories written by the central character in this many-charactered novel, writer wife and mother Olive Wellwood. But the further I read in it, the harder it was to put down. I wanted to find out what happened to the parents and children of the three interrelated English families whose lives are the subject of this book.

The book reminds me Iris Murdoch. It's a long chatty novel about sex and ideas, usually intertwined and frequently inseparable. Most of the characters are protected from harsh reality by position, wealth and education, but they feel guilt over the condition of the poor and some of them actually try to do something about it. They are oh so vulnerable to the ravages of passion, which is the driving engine of much of this big, ambitious novel.

There are two other driving forces in this novel. The one is Art, the passion to create. The other is the condition of women. Five hundred pages into the narrative, three cousins -intelligent, concerned young women--one of them is studying to become a doctor--discuss their futures. Griselda tells Florence, "You needn't worry. You are engaged to be married." Florence, who's not sure she wants to marry the man to whom she is engaged, replies, "The truth is that the women we are -have become--are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don't, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters, like viola in Twelfth Night, or Miss Harrison's harpies and gorgons." They raise the question of women's suffrage: "do you think getting the Vote would help?" "It would remove one of the endless humiliating differences between men and women. It might make it possible -in some new world--for the sexes to talk to each other, like people.... Of course we ought to be able to vote. But I don't know that having the vote will affect the things that frighten me."

There are enough surprises in this book, some of them sensational, to fill three ordinary novels! People fall in and out of different people's beds, children are born out of wedlock, your parents turn out not to be the parents you thought you had after all, there are intimations of incest and a father tries to force his daughter, a mad man diverts his untamable sex urge into pornographic pottery, people kill themselves out of despair or anger or ennui. Even when narrating the most bizarre happenings, Byatt creates believable and engaging characters, and she is equally adept at portraying women AND men.

My advice to the reader starting this novel is: stick with it. It's worth it. This is a superior novel.
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34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, July 18, 2009
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
This is a wonderful sprawling novel that takes readers from the pastoral innocence of children to the deep dismay and destruction of war. It tells the story of a number of families in Britain from the end of the Victorian era through to the first world war and encompasses the yearnings of youth for lives outside that previously dictated by class and gender. It's not a novel of love, it's a novel of change and through that change, love is lost and found. Characters are beautifully rendered and the reader weeps when so many promising lives are squandered in the killing fields of the war. It's an elegy to art, to involvement and to family.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Buried beneath is a nugget of a story about families, October 9, 2010
This review is from: The Children's Book (Paperback)
A S Byatt is a Serious Literary Novelist, not a popular fiction writer, so it's hardly surprising that many readers have found her latest Booker shortlisted title "The Children's Book (TCB)" to be difficult and impenetrable. Her famous "Possession" may boast a more distinct and compelling storyline - it was made into a Hollywood movie minus the arty trappings and so has acquired a place in the popular imagination - though that doesn't alter the fact that readers have to negotiate past pages thick with poetry and art history to get to the plot. And it's no different with TCB, except that it's that much harder to summarise in a sentence or two what the book is about.

Unlike "Possession", there are no real main characters or protagonists in TBC. Rather, the book is about a certain artistic community comprising writers, intellectuals, museum curators, potters, artisans, etc belonging to a particularly confusing time in English history (early 20th century) marked by a sudden great gush of social movements drawing attention to the plight of the poor and issues of universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, the provision of education and healthcare to the masses. As girls from privileged homes start to think of proper careers for themselves and boys from underprivileged homes dare to dream beyond the dictates of their own class restrictions, the looming dark forces of imperialism would collide and throw their orderly world into turmoil culminating in the First World War.

Against this backdrop, Byatt weaves together an intriguing yet chilling tale of families (eg, the Wellwoods, Fludds, Cains, etc) to reveal a sordid underbelly of disturbing lies and secrets that remain firmly underground beneath the midsummer nights tale type fanstasy world they create with their regular performances in each other's splendid homes until the inevitable happens. The truths about their lives are instead hinted at if not conveyed through the stories fantasy book writer Olive Wellwood writes for each of her children. Interestingly enough, overarching Byatt's story about families in the Edwardian era is another story of European royals bound inextricably to each other by blood about to confront the contradictions between their imperialistic ambitions and their ties.

Buried beneath a deep morass of cultural and social details that would mean nothing to readers unfamiliar with European and English history is a nugget of a story waiting to be uncovered. Trouble is, Byatt couldn't decide whether TCB should be a social and cultural treatise of early 20th England or a fictional story about families. Neither fish nor fowl, TCB falls between two stools and loses a wider readership it clearly merits. Casual readers will skim or skip whole paragraphs (sometimes even pages) to track the storyline. Less patient readers might simply give up without finishing the book. A pity, cos a worthwhile story lies buried beneath the mountain of artifacts.

I enjoyed TCB very much because I was mentally prepared for the challenge and determined to finish it. It is nevertheless not for the casual reader or the fainthearted. Difficult but worthwhile.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I was excited to read this, but didn't care for it, March 19, 2010
This review is from: The Children's Book (Hardcover)
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I love massive tomes and very detailed writing - settling in for a good, long read is one of the pleasures in life. Unfortunately, it took me several days to get through the first seventy pages before giving up. I rarely quit reading any book once I've started it, so I put it away for a few weeks and began again. Largely being an optimist, I assumed that I just wasn't in the correct mood at the time or that I just had different expectations that what the book delivered.

Even with all that, I just didn't like this book at all. I don't want to discourage other readers who enjoy this type of book (and I thought I was one of those folks), but it wasn't for me. In this case, if a paragraph or two could communicate the message, the author decided three or four pages would be better. It was just too much of everything -- cast of thousands, vast amounts of minuitae, and many story lines.

Some books are just plain bad and that's not what I am saying about this one. I can see an audience for this novel, but it just isn't me.
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The Children's Book
The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (Hardcover - October 6, 2009)
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