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The Children's Book Paperback – August 10, 2010
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From the Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author of Possession: a deeply affecting story of a singular family.
When children’s book author Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of a museum, she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends. But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. The Wellwoods’ personal struggles and hidden desires unravel against a breathtaking backdrop of the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, as the Edwardian period dissolves into World War I and Europe’s golden era comes to an end.
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“Majestic . . . Dazzling . . . Wonderful . . . . What you see here . . . is the strength and fire of Byatt’s imagination.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
“Bristling with life and invention. . . . A seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer.” —The Washington Post
“[Byatt’s] magnum opus. . . . Lushly detailed. . . . Every stitch of this tapestry is connected to the whole.” —The Seattle Times
“[A] masterpiece. . . . Her best yet.” —Newsday
“[A] ravishing epic. . . . This is a classic Byatt fusion of fact and uncannily luscious imagery, mixed in the ideal proportions: not too hot, not too cold—just right.” —Salon
“A stunning achievement: a novel of ideas that crackles with passion, energy and emotive force. . . . I did not want The Children’s Book to end . . . I wanted more of this ambitious, compelling novel, certainly Byatt’s best since Possession, and possibly her best ever.” —Patricia Hagen, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Unforgettable. . . . Eloquent. . . . Majestic and immensely ambitious . . . with masterly skill and literary tact. . . . A monument of a novel.” —The New York Review of Books
“Supremely fulfilling . . . wondrous . . . rich with period detail and sublime storytelling. . . . A mesmerizing exploration of, well, everything: families, secrets, love, innocence, corruption, art, the desire for knowledge, nature, politics, war, sex, power. Even puppetry.” —The Miami Herald
“Spellbinding. . . . Alive . . . Potent. . . . Byatt is a master storyteller.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Sweeping. . . . A literary feast. . . . Byatt fills a huge canvas with the political and social changes that swept the world in those years . . . She elicits great compassion of the individual beings caught in that tableau. It’s not a tale you’ll soon forget.” —USA Today
“Intricately crafted, deeply satisfying. . . . Encompassing in scope and watch-maker precise in detail. . . . Fans of Possession, you’ve got yourself a new bedtime story.” —Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
“Rich, expansive. . . . Byatt is a spinner of multiple tales, adding gorgeous layers and dimensions to this fictional world.” —The Los Angeles Times
“Engaging and rewarding.” —The New Yorker
“A rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act. . . . Byatt’s penetrating, unsentimental style hits its mark. [The period] details are never less than fascinating.” —Time
“A complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction. . . . The magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Only Byatt could stuff this massive book so full of detail, character, and history while never losing track either of human feelings or of the sweeping, precipitous decline of the culture she documents.” —The Onion A.V. Club
“Fascinating . . . An exhilarating panorama . . . Passionate, intelligent. . . . A richly peopled narrative that encompasses an unusual breadth of artistic, intellectual, social, and political concerns . . . [Byatt is] a master builder, laying each brick of her tower with consummate skill. Here is a novel in which everything matters.” —Boston Sunday Globe
“Uncompromisingly erudite. . . . Like Possession, The Children’s Book is a tour de force of literary chameleonism and social history. . . . [It] brings to vivid life the often irreconcilable demands of being an artist and being a human being.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Wonderful, engaging. . . . A fine, rich, fully accomplished novel.” —The Dallas Morning News
“A kind of tragic fairy tale, and Byatt does fairy tales wonderfully.” —Newsweek
“A fascinating literary achievement. . . . [With a] captivating sense of language and narrative. . . . A more genuine look at young adulthood than any teenage wizards could hope to provide.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Riveting. . . . As this complex novel builds toward its finale, it forgoes one of Olive's enchanting endings in favor of something closer to life." —Time Out New York
"Stunning . . . . Magnificent. . . . Intricate. . . . Matching and arguably surpassing Possession in breadth and ambition." —Bookforum
“So well-researched that The Children’s Book could well have been a consummate history of the [Edwardian] era. . . . The book brims in rich pictorial description . . . But more than that, Byatt’s book is an astute moral lesson.” —Chicago Sun-Times
About the Author
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (August 10, 2010)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 896 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0307473066
- ISBN-13 : 978-0307473066
- Item Weight : 1.66 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.2 x 1.9 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #562,674 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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One of the reviews made some relationship of the length of this novel and one of Dickens. Dickens however got his length with a much better integration of the history with his characters and the plot. This author was jarring in her transitions were distracting. Her knowledge was excellent and perhaps reading one of her other books might work differently.
Moving through the many characters was confusing at first but I finally got everyone sorted out. The most effective demigod history and character came at the end of the book as she described the impact of WW I on everyone involved. I was left happier as a reader with the flow through this part - the integration of the survivors and the devastation along with the reconciliation was powerful.
Amazon needs to give accurate replicas of book pages.
The novel opens in what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a young boy, Philip Warren, a runaway from child labor in the potteries, has taken refuge in a hidden chamber in the labyrinthine basement, emerging only to draw the objects on display -- for despite his early experiences, he has an acute eye and a love for well-made things. He attracts the attention of Olive Wellwood, a children's book author who has come to the museum seeking inspiration, and she takes him to stay with her family at Todefright in Kent (wonderful name!). Olive is a refugee from a mining community herself, and many of her stories are about dispossessed children and underground realms, so Philip's situation strikes a chord. He arrives in time for the Wellwoods' Midsummer party, where he will meet the large cast of children (and as many adults) whose lives will be followed over the next 650 pages.
Although beginning in the Victorian age, this is the 1890s, the end of the century. The novel's characters are not merchant princes and defenders of Empire, but artists, craftsmen, eccentrics, socialists, suffragists, pamphleteers, and nature worshipers. Byatt precisely evokes the liberal fringe of society reacting against Victorian industrialization, militarism, and commerce -- especially through the making of art. Philip, for instance, is soon introduced to Benedict Fludd, a temperamental genius who runs a pottery in the desolate Romney Marshes, where the boy gets a chance to produce original work of his own. Byatt, who taught at an art school in earlier life, has long had an interest in the visual arts, and one of the glories of this book are the objects that she conjures with such skill that you marvel at their originality and beauty.
Fairy tales have a way of touching on matters that children do not consciously understand, and as the novel probes backwards some very dark secrets come painfully into the light. But primarily the book moves forward; children grow up, lose their innocence, move into a world where fables can no longer sustain them. Many of the outcomes are happy, but with the new century the world itself is moving into a time of mourning a lost innocence that perhaps never existed. It is the age of children's stories; Kenneth Grahame ( THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS ), James Barrie ( PETER PAN ), and others were writing, perhaps in retreat from what they saw around them. Byatt handles the historical overview well, but there are places where she becomes more historian than novelist; the chapters describing the Paris Exposition of 1900 or the Munich cabaret scene of a few years later, brilliant as they are, almost lose the thread of the narrative, and perhaps there are too many famous people making convenient cameo appearances: Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, Marie Stopes, and Emma Goldman, to name but a few. By the last third of the novel, the characters seem to be moved more by the tides of history than by their own volition. And the First World War is almost too easy a device for tying up the numerous narrative loose ends -- though Byatt handles the final pages with all her accustomed grace.
Behind Byatt's childlike charm there is also a smoldering anger, especially when she writes about women -- for this was also watershed era for feminism. Wealthy or poor, married or single, all her female characters seem to be looking for some truer realization of the self than society will easily allow them. One determines to become a doctor; another finds independent success as an artist. Two others go up to Newnham College, Cambridge, as Byatt herself did; there is a quality of strong personal conviction here, as a battle that needed to be fought then and must still be fought now. Indeed the whole novel, whose scope cannot be captured in a short review, seems the summation not only of Byatt's immense scholarship, but also her passion as an advocate of personal freedom. Words are her weapon, and she knows the power of story-telling to convey things that lie deeper than facts. But she also knows that some facts lie beyond the reach of stories, and that the writer may harm almost as easily as she can heal. Neither of the fictional authors portrayed in this book come over entirely as positive influences, and the latter part of the novel is almost a demonstration of the limitations of fiction. But also of its power.
Top reviews from other countries
There are sections throughout where Byatt is obviously trying to illustrate the period by using lots of historical references which I though were a little long-winded. I also found the poetry chapter near the end a bit indulgent (in that it didn't further the story). Despite this I found The Children's Book quite captivating.
The canvas of this book is so large that it drowns the characters in history and information about every possible political and social movement at the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. A link is made with some of the characters through the writing of a children's book with stories started by the children but it is too disjointed to create a cohesion of the entire story.
The children's tales are interesting and well conceived but no important enough to the writer; they get consumed in this fascinating period of history and the constant effort to present every subject at the same level of importance, ending with none of them having the time to grow or be explored enough.
" The book has so many fictional and historical characters that Byatt had to create a spreadsheet in Excel to keep track of them all.”
A breathtaking work that lost oxygen in the flame of its passions and never got to the heights it wanted to achieve. But it is still a good read with moments of beauty and wonder, and some very sad descriptions of the first world war and the suffering women endured trying to get the right to vote and the right to education; that alone redeems and makes this book a good read.
I'm glad I did, I thought this book was great. It concerns the Wellwood family, who live at a large house named Todefright in the country, and their wide network of family and friends : The London Wellwoods, The Cains, The Fludds, The Sterns and many more.
Olive Wellwood is a children's writer and mother to seven children and two others that died in infancy. Though she has many children she favours oldest son Tom and does not conceal it. As she busies herself in her work, the children are largely reared by her spinster sister Violet, who thinks of herself as their true mother.
The novel has a wide cast of both fictional and historical characters and is set initially in the Victorian era and runs all the way through to World War I. What I simply loved about this novel is the way that political and social ideas at the time, events, current affairs and philosophy are reflected through the eyes and experiences of all the characters. It is a totally remarkable production in terms of sheer research and effort, it is like a mini degree in comparative fiction. At times, particularly towards the end, it spends too much time on the history and not enough on the characters but the amount of topics it covers is astonishing :
Socialism and Marxism
The impact of being the child of a children's author
Education, particularly of women, in contrast to the importance of marriage
The Fabian Society of which many characters are members
The problems of being German in England in WWI
Artistry and artistic genius
and many more. It's fascinating. Not just the issues but the characters themselves. Dorothy and her difficult relationship with Olive, Olive's complex relationship with Tom, the psychology of Tom himself a child of nature deeply damaged by his experience at public school. The bizarre marriage of Olive and Humphrey with their ongoing trysts. The women of the Fludd family and their Havisham like existence. Elsie Warren and her brother Phillip. Herbert Methley. The characters are just great.
Towards the end their stories did begin to feel a little shoehorned - there is more to Hedda's story for example than the too short passages devoted to it, the same could be said for Robin Wellwood and Robin Oakshott. Though the book closes at 1918, some characters surviving and others not following the Great War; I really felt that if ever a book warranted a sequel it is this one and I really, really hope that Byatt writes one, so we can follow the lives our characters and their descendants through the historical events of the rest of the 20th Century.
I hugely recommend this book, my best of 2012 thus far 10/10