The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt
Knopf, October 2009



A.S. Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book, revolves around the character of Olive Wellwood, a writer of stories for children, and her family, including a husband, a sister, and many children, all of whom live together on a rambling country estate in late-19th-century England. Olive Wellwood is said to be based, in part, on E. Nesbit, a British writer whose stories for children included The Story of the Treasure Seekers and Five Children and It, and who remains a popular writer today.

Like Nesbit, Olive Wellwood belongs to the Fabian Society, a group that advocated for democratic socialism and social reforms, and the novel concerns itself with progressive social and artistic movements as well as fairy tales and folklore. It's a complex book, with many threads brought together by Byatt's typically gorgeous and atmospheric prose. I'm only on page 112, but I can't wait to dig deeper into this book and experience the scope of Byatt's story, which eventually encompasses the period leading up to World War I and the end of England's Edwardian era.

In the section below, the Wellwoods and some of their friends are watching a German marionette show:

An illusion is a complicated thing, and an audience is a complicated creature. Both need to be brought from flyaway parts to a smooth, composite whole. The world inside the box, a world made of silk, satin, china mouldings, wires, hinges, painted backcloths, moving lights and musical notes, must come alive with its own laws of movement, its own rules of story. And the watchers, wide-eyed and greedy, distracted and supercilious, preoccupied, uncomfortable, tense, must become one, as a shoal of fishes with huge eyes and flickering fins becomes one, wheeling this way and that in response to messages of hunger, fear or delight. August's flute was heard, and some were ready to listen and some were not. The curtains opened on a child's bedroom. He sat against his pillows. His nurse, in comfortable grey, bustled about him, and her shadow loomed over him on the white wall.

She told the small Nathanael about the Sandman. "He steals the eyes of naughty little children," she said, comfortably, "and feeds them to his own children, who live in a nest on the moon, and open their beaks like owlets."

There was a heavy tap-tap of slow feet ascending the stairs. The backcloth showed the shadow of the turning of the banister, and the rising head and shoulders of the shadow of the old man, hook-nosed, hump-backed, claw-handed, stump, stump, his coat-skirts swinging.

The puppet-child pulled the blankets over his head, and the stage darkened.


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Related in BookPage: A review of The Children's Book; reviews of Byatt's other books.

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