three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
A.S. Byatt
user_rating: 
0

A-The Childrens BookA. S. Byatt's novel Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990 and was adapted into a film. Byatt is the author of many other novels and short story collections, including Babel Tower, The Matisse Stories, and Angels & Insects. The Children's Book was short-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

The Story: In 1895, two boys discover a runaway residing in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. One boy is the son of Olive Wellwood, a famed children's author. Olive decides to help the young runaway, an aspiring artist named Philip Warren, and Philip is taken in by Wellwood family friend and renowned potter Benedict Fludd. In a novel spanning several decades, Byatt chronicles the seemingly idyllic lives of the Wellwoods and their seven children, as well as the Fludds and an assortment of artistically inclined friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. At the heart of the novel is an exploration of the influences, both good and bad, that a highly creative parent can have on his or her children.
Knopf. 675 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307272096

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers will also be allowed to think, as they sink comfortably into Byatt's gorgeously stuffed narrative. ... The Children's Book manages to be encompassing in scope and watch-maker precise in detail." Yvonne Zipp

Times (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"High among the qualities giving the book aesthetic appeal is its author's responsiveness to the art and artefacts of the era she is chronicling. ... The Children's Book is a work that superlatively displays both enormous reach and tremendous grip." Peter Kemp

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"While her novels may not be read as far into the future as those of George Eliot, her idol--for historical novels, which are Ms. Byatt's forte, are seldom treasured as emblems of their own era--they are certainly on a par with Disraeli's or Mrs. Gaskell's panoramic and socially astute works of fiction. ... The Children's Book brings to vivid life the often irreconcilable demands of being an artist and being a human being." Brooke Allen

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a wonderful, engaging novel, but be forewarned. ... This is a novel that needs, and doesn't have, a character list." David Walton

Time 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]t has Possession's omnivorous range but not its propulsive discipline. Still, The Children's Book is a rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act." Radhika Jones

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While Byatt's engagement with the period's overlapping circles of artists and reformers is serious and deep, so much is stuffed into The Children's Book that it can be hard to see the magic forest for all the historical lumber--let alone the light at the end of the narrative tunnel. ... Too often readers may feel as if they're marooned in the back galleries of a museum with a frighteningly energetic docent." Jennifer Schuessler

Houston Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Byatt's descriptive passages are detailed and eloquent, but the characters feel hollow and, at times, contrived. The narrative stalls and languishes from time to time, tripping over its own weight, and dead ending in didactic passages on historic events that don't propel the story." Jennifer Latson

Critical Summary

Gorgeously stuffed? Or overstuffed? Critics were clearly split on Byatt's latest offering. Several enthusiastically praised The Children's Book as a stunning literary achievement, a thinking person's novel, and the most noteworthy of Byatt's books since Possession was published almost 20 years ago. Others argued that, while Byatt is adept at richly evoking the Edwardian era, the book stumbles under the weight of its own excess. Too many characters, too many scandalous events, too many puppet shows, and too many passages on social history caused the exhausted critic from the Houston Chronicle to state: "Even the dirty parts ... seem to drag." Overall, however, The Children's Book is a worthy novel for dedicated Byatt fans who like their tomes dense, descriptive, and multilayered.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Why is this novel called The Children's Book? Discuss the many possible meanings this title suggests.
2. How are fairy tales important to the novel—both to the story and to the characters themselves? Byatt has said in interviews that fairy tales and the children's books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E. Nesbit's magical stories and The Wind in the Willows, inspired her to write the novel; do you see echoes of any of your favorite children's stories here?
3. We follow a huge cast of characters for nearly three decades over the course of the novel; whom did you care about most at the end? Many of the characters are not who they seem; how did your feelings about these characters change as the story developed?
4. What secrets are the many families in the novel—the Todefright Wellwoods, the Basil Wellwoods, the Cains, the Fludds, and even Elsie and Philip—hiding from each other and from outsiders? Which of the characters' betrayals did you find most shocking?
5. How does class constrain the characters in the novel? Olive and Elsie both marry outside their class—are they similar in any other ways? Which is the greater divide for them and the other characters in the novel: class or sex? How does Philip's absorption into the Wellwood circle differ from his sister's?
6. From the opening scene, pottery—the craft of it, its history, the contrast between fine art and factory-made pieces—is a recurring presence throughout the novel. Does Olive do the right thing in apprenticing Philip to Benedict Fludd? How does Byatt use the metaphor of clay to enrich the story?
7. A German puppeteer is a surprise guest at the Wellwoods' Midsummer party at the beginning of the novel. What role do puppets play in the novel, and what do they represent? How does the relationship between the German and British characters change as the novel unfolds?
8. What is the significance of the Tree House? What does it mean to Tom—and to his siblings?
9. Motherhood is a crucial part of the novel, and of Olive's stories; Olive herself is something of a "Mother Goose," as in her story "The Shrubbery". But is Olive a good mother? What about Violet, and the other mothers in the story?
10. How does the notion of lineage—of knowing who one's real parents are—affect the children in the novel? Does knowing "the truth" ultimately make much difference to the adults the children grow into—or do the people who actually raise them, and the way they are raised, make more of an impact?
11. A number of the adult characters are artists in one way or another; many of them—through their art or their actions—cause damage to the other people in their lives. Discuss how the artists in the novel both create and destroy.
12. Discuss the Fludd family. Why do you think Byatt chose not to divulge the specifics of Benedict's acts? What do you think he did?
13. In an essay she wrote for the London Times, Byatt wrote, "There is a strong case to be made that the Edwardians enjoyed school stories, magical tales, and tales of children alone in landscapes—woodland camps, secret expeditions—because they were themselves reluctant to grow up." How do the adults in the novel reflect this idea? What distinction do the characters make between childhood and adulthood? What distinction is Byatt making through the novel?
14. Several characters embrace the notion of free love, or of sex outside marriage. What is the result? Is it good for any of them? How do these attitudes resemble, or not, those of the 1960s in the United States?
15. How is Dorothy—who doesn't share her mother's love of stories, who is the serious daughter, and who becomes a doctor—different from her siblings? How does Humphry's revelation, and his betrayal, change her?
16. Several characters undergo transformations. Is Charles/Karl's the most obvious, or the least?
17. Olive writes stories for each of her seven children, which are bound into their own private books. As the novel unfolds, the story written for her oldest and most beloved son, Tom—"Tom Underground"—becomes more and more important. Why does he cling so tightly to this fairy tale? What does the metaphor of shadow signify? Why does he see the play his mother writes as a betrayal?
18. Dorothy tells Tom that he's responsible for Philip's success. Is this accurate? Why or why not?
19. What is the significance of the stone with a hole that Tom picks up?
20. Why does Hedda try to destroy the Gloucester Candlestick? Is it a coincidence that she chose this item? How does the suffragette movement affect her and the other women in the story?
21. Reread Julian's poetry. How does it reflect upon the novel itself?
22. The Children's Book is a historical panorama that encompasses many political and social movements of the early twentieth century. Were you familiar with the figures and movements Byatt discusses: the Fabian Society, British socialists, women's rights, etc.? What is your understanding of their purpose in the novel?
23. The acknowledgments give a glimpse of the research that went into the novel; what subjects did you most enjoy learning about? How does Byatt's erudition enrich her storytelling?
24. The Great War seems to take nearly all of the characters by surprise; were you surprised by the scope of the damage it inflicted? Which character is most changed by the war? Did it change the way you saw the characters' sexual and personal secrets—and how they themselves saw their own lives?
25. Reread pages 878–879, the last pages of the novel. Is it a happy ending? What emotions are conjured by this reunion, which takes place in a far different setting than that which opens the novel—and around a bowl of soup?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.