2010: 1. The Children's Book

“Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on the third.  It was June 19th, 1895.”

The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt

     I love Byatt when she’s working in her historical fiction mode (Possession, one of my favorite books ever, and the short stories, like Angels and Insects),* and The Children’s Book is a remarkable achievement of both history and fiction.  It is a novel of the Edwardian period, the story of the Wellwoods, Bohemian family raising their children in their little artistic community outside of London, and of the other families that drift in and out of their orbit.  We follow the family over about twenty years, watching the children grow up, and ending (SPOILER, but only if you are unable to count dates), as all such stories must, in the trenches.  It is crammed with the history of the time – I think I caught about half of the references floating about, but it is also filled with characters, from Olive Wellwood, mother and writer of fairy tales that keep her family afloat, Humphrey her husband, the socialist banker, and their children, from drifty Tom to determined Dorothy.  And the novel shows us the proper face of society (even among a boho set), and what secrets (both liberated and horrible) that propriety could hide.  The characters are what make the story – Byatt has a huge cast, but manages to make them all real and interesting – but facing the real problems that contemporary novelists would not have written about, but still making them seem of their time, not just modern characters in period dress.   I know this is early, but this is absolutely in the running for the best book I’ll read this year – dense and literary, emotional and compelling – a novel of ideas that nonetheless teems with characters you care about.  Loved it.

*I find her more modern stuff a little dry – which is to say I have never enjoyed a book about Frederica Potter, no matter how hard I try. 

Date/Place Completed: January 2010; D.C.

Categories: Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017