The heft of A.S. Byatt’s latest work, The Children’s Book, promises a detailed, sprawling story. But the actual scope of this ambitious novel has to be experienced to be believed. The story of an age more than anything else, it encompasses 25 years (1895-1919) and has at least that many main characters, which leaves the reader wondering how they can all come to such vivid life in just 700 pages.
If such a wide-ranging saga can be said to have a center, this novel’s is Olive Wellwood, a complicated woman whose writing for children (she’s based in part on the writer E. Nesbit) financially supports the large family her sister, Violet, cares for while Olive writes and her husband works in Parliament. The Wellwoods are part of a circle of artistic friends, and the children are raised in a bohemian, permissive atmosphere that rivals Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.
Themes of creation and art—its power and what a person must sacrifice in its pursuit—are at the heart of The Children’s Book. Fairy-tale allusions abound, and some of the best passages are Olive’s writings, which have the almost subliminal creepiness found in the best fairy tales. Byatt displays her signature interest in secrets of all sorts, from those parents keep from children to those we hide from ourselves. Her characters juggle physical and intellectual desires, pursuits and goals—like Olive’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, whose desire to become a doctor is verbally but not always materially supported by her counter-cultural family; and Phillip, a runaway with the drive and genius to become a great potter, who is discovered living in the basement of the brand-new South Kensington (soon to be Victoria & Albert) Museum at the beginning of the book.
The Children’s Book has been touted as Byatt’s best work since Possession, the 1990 novel that brought the author a wider audience (she’s been publishing novels since 1964). The two novels do share many characteristics, but in many ways The Children’s Book, with its meticulous, complete rendering of a time and place, surpasses that earlier work. Masterful, complex and thought provoking, it will linger in the mind.