BookBrowse Reviews The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Children's Book

A Novel

by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt X
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2009, 688 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2010, 896 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


A novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of Possession that spans the Victorian era through World War I

When I first plunged into The Children's Book, what struck me was how real the characters were. Olive Wellwood and her circle of friends and family didn't feel like characters, they felt like people. From just a few sentences, I felt like I knew these children who were wandering through the South Kensington Museum in London, looking for adventure. As I continued to read, I was impressed with how A. S. Byatt succeeded in making the innovations of the late 19th century, like electric lighting and automobiles, seem rare and magical without being trite.

The expansive scope of this novel, and the attention to detail in so many areas - theater, pottery, fairy tales, anarchy, socialism and many others - is impressively handled and rarely does the history interfere with the storytelling. The historical characters (Oscar Wilde, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emma Goldman, Queen Victoria, Auguste Rodin) are used in such a way that knowing the history can increase the reader's understanding, but is not necessary to follow the fictional characters and storyline. We visit the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris with several of the characters, each with a different area of interest, so we discover how ornate and impressive it was without ever having heard of it before.

While this is clearly a historical novel, it does not read like one until the end - when World War I is close at hand. The historical connections are never far away, but most of that history is conveyed directly through the lived experiences of the characters. One daughter is a suffragette, another trains to be a doctor. One nephew flirts with the Anarchists. Young women get pregnant out of wedlock, and poor folks die from hazardous working conditions. None of these occurrences are statistics, they are real situations portrayed with the nuance and ambiguity of lived experience. The younger generation gets the most attention, with the adults serving mostly to make their lives difficult and complicated.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel until the advent of World War I. While I'm sure that is partly because it is hard to watch characters you love go through tragedy, I think the author spends a lot less time on the inner lives of the characters once the children become adults. I am sure this is deliberate on Byatt's part - these happy lives (while far from perfect) become increasingly dark. I felt like the first half of the novel was much more character-driven, whereas the last quarter was mostly plot. That plot was certainly well-written and exciting, but not as fulfilling. I was disappointed that the ending didn't come with a little more of the clarity and understanding I had enjoyed so much in the first part of the book.

There is a point in the novel where an author - free-loving nudist Herbert Methley - gives a lecture and says that "It was not possible in a novel to describe most of the world as it really was." It is obvious that Byatt is trying to refute that statement with this novel. She attempts to portray life during this difficult period as it truly was, and for this generation there were few happy endings.

Useful to know
The Children's Book is loosely based on the life of children's writer E. Nesbit.

Reviewed by Beverly Melven

This review was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: Killers of the Flower Moon
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    by David Grann
    Voted 2017 Best Nonfiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    The long, sorrowful list of injustices done ...
  • Book Jacket: The Dry
    The Dry
    by Jane Harper
    Voted 2017 Best Debut Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    After receiving a letter from his childhood...
  • Book Jacket: Little Fires Everywhere
    Little Fires Everywhere
    by Celeste Ng
    Voted 2017 Best Fiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    Small towns, big drama. Acclaimed author ...
  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

"Electrifying . . . as beautiful and as icy as the Minnesota woods where it's set."
—NPR

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, and a Man Booker Prize Finalist

Enter

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay: $400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.