April 2024
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Review: The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt

Two boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, are wandering around a half-completed museum in London when they come across a third boy, Philip Warren, drawing the museum’s sculptures.  He has fled from his family and his life in the horrible pottery factories, and the Wellwood family takes him in and finds him a place with Benedict Fludd, a strange and temperamental sculptor.  At first glance, all of these families appear happy, particularly the large Wellwood family with successful children’s book author Olive Wellwood and her banker husband Humphry at its head.  As the years go by, however, and the children grow up and learn the realities of the world, they understand that their childhood was an illusion as paper thin as Olive’s fairy tales.

I loved this book.  I don’t think everyone will love it; it’s a long, dense book, more a portrait of family and art than anything with a plot.  Although, to be honest, I didn’t think the descriptions of pots were as boring as everyone says, and there weren’t as many as I’d expected, either.  I loved the intricate detail and the thought that went into this book.  I felt it was such a gorgeous picture of late Victorian England, and Edwardian England, and even, heartbreakingly, World War I era England.  It was a full picture of a society both different from our own and becoming our own.  Honestly, I could live in this book’s atmosphere, even if I wouldn’t particularly want to live in a time where options for women were so limited.

I adored the children in each of their various ways and was fascinated by their coming-of-ages.  There are so many different strands with each of them in the novel and their fates are all bound up together.  I was riveted by Dorothy’s determination to become a doctor, for example, and I completely admired her ambition and devotion to science.  I cheered on her success.  I longed for the happiness of Elsie and Philip, two children seriously disadvantaged by their upbringing.  I was torn by Tom’s story, and didn’t understand why his mother didn’t understand.  In short, each of the characters has their own plot arcs, and some are heartbreaking, while some are joyful.

Closing the book with the effects of World War I makes the entire rest of the book feel idyllic.  I felt as though I was feeling what the British must have felt as they sent their sons off to die, each with their own life story as these character possess, and I found the entire last section absolutely heartbreaking.  Here is a book that depicts the horrors of war, how each life is cut off abruptly with no preparation and no ending.  It’s easy to see how this changed England and this book brought it home to me.

I’m not sure I loved The Children’s Book as much as I loved Possession, but the more I think about it, the more I think that might be possible.  It has made this review hard to write because I can’t pin down exactly why.  But I’ve tried, and if you have the patience for this, I believe it will reward you immensely.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the Amazon Vine program for review.


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