It begins with the discovery of a boy hiding in a museum.
The time is 1895, the boy is Philip Warren, and the museum is the precursor to the Victoria & Albert: the South Kensington Museum. And, oh, yes –there’s a remarkable piece of art that the boy is besotted with — the Gloucester Candlestick. However, while this may make many children’s book mavens think immediately of E. L. Konigsburg’s classical story for children, let me say straight out — A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is a book for grown-ups. It is emphatically not a children’s book although it is about children, about books, about art, about the writing of children’s books, about the telling of children’s stories, about the clash between life and art, and about a whole lot more. A saga of a book teeming with complex characters, fascinating settings, intellectual provocations, and erudite prose, it gets under your skin as you get deeper and deeper into it and won’t let you go even after you reach the last page.
Firstly it is a novel for those who read for character. While I did find it challenging at times to keep track of the ever-growing cast and would have to flip back to remind myself of secondary characters when they returned to the scene, the unfathomable depth of just about all the characters, major and minor, left me breathless. I loved the way Byatt both told us a lot about these characters, the children as they grow up and the adults as they grow older, and left a lot for us to wonder about as well. Things happen to those children as they grow up, but we don’t always know just what — we can guess. And things clearly happened to the adults when they were children too. Things that cause them to do all sorts of things — good, bad, and dreadful. Or, in some cases, to not do things — to never quite grow-up. Byatt never tells us exactly, but points her readers into very specific directions in order to figure out just what turned these characters into what they all are or become by the end of the book.
Then there are the settings —from that museum to rambling arty homes in the country to marionette theaters and to war theaters — they are absolutely superb. The evident historical verisimilitude, best as I can sense, is extraordinary. The story ranges from various British sites to Germany and Paris and back again. Byatt takes us into homes of artists, of craftsmen, into lectures of the time, into political meetings, into theaters, into hallways, into bedrooms, into schools, into secret places created by children. The small touches, say the consistent description of the women’s clothing (as if out of a fashion magazine of the time) made for a complete and remarkable world. Or the larger touches, say the excerpts from children’s books that are sprinkled throughout and spot-on in their likeness to the actual stories of the time. While I knew something of the time period of the book — beginning with late Victorian and ending with the end of World War I, I loved the details, taking me beyond what I knew in fascinating ways.
As for Byatt’s prose — it is as superb as ever. Now I think of myself as pretty knowledgeable about words, but I needed to refer to a dictionary frequently when reading this book. Pertinacious? Lucubrations? Byatt’s sentences are full of lush and unfamiliar (to me, at least) words like these. And may I say that I was particularly in love with her use of adverbs? Ever since someone pointed out to me J.K. Rowling’s overuse of them I have become unduly aware of them when I read. Byatt’s use of them is one of the best I’ve seen. Here’s a taste: “Nothing is final, thought Dorothy pragmatically, and made a final decision.”
Finally, there is the plot. Ah, yes, the plot. My guess is that those who read firstly for plot may find this book a bit of a challenge. For it is a saga, a long multi-year, multi-generational story, full of remarkable small and big scenes, small and big plot threads — a complicated web of a story. The arguably main character of the book (arguably because she is often off-stage for long periods of time while other characters are front and center) is Olive Wellworth, a writer of children’s books presumably modeled on the real-life writer E. Nesbit, author of such gems as The Story of the Amulet and The Railway Children. For a long time I wasn’t quite sure what the plot was. I didn’t care because I was so taken by the characters, the setting, the different threads being wound about, but I did wonder what the big story was. It is there, but it took me the whole book to figure out what it was. And when I did — wow! It was profoundly sad and moving and quite breathtaking — not in a solving-of-the-mystery sort of way, but in a deep more metaphysical sort of way.
For those willing to simply move into the world of Philip Warren, Olive Wellworth and their circle, to savor the lives of intellectuals and artists of their time, and to consider the cost of art — this is a remarkable book indeed.