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The Children's Book (2009)

by A. S. Byatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,4761942,676 (3.81)1 / 642
When Olive Wellwood's oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum--a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive's magical tales--she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends--a world that conceals more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined and that will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces.… (more)
  1. 90
    War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (WoodsieGirl)
    WoodsieGirl: The more I read of The Children's Book, the more it reminded me of War and Peace - the same juxtaposition of small-scale, human dramas against the sweep of history, and the same knack for introducing characters as children who are recognisably the same people as the adults at the end of the book.… (more)
  2. 80
    Atonement by Ian McEwan (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  3. 81
    The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (rbtanger)
    rbtanger: Similar in time frame to The Children's Book, but with a much more satisfactory central mystery and ending. Also contains a fairy-tale authoress and several inserted "tales".
  4. 10
    Little, Big by John Crowley (Crypto-Willobie)
  5. 10
    Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (kiwiflowa)
  6. 10
    Sugar and Other Stories by A. S. Byatt (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: The genesis of "The Children's Book" can be seen in the short story, "The Changeling".
  7. 00
    The Lake House by Kate Morton (kethorn23)
  8. 00
    Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies (Cecilturtle)
  9. 00
    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Crypto-Willobie)
  10. 00
    The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (JoEnglish)
  11. 24
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (kidzdoc)

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» See also 642 mentions

English (181)  Dutch (4)  Italian (2)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (1)  French (1)  Latvian (1)  German (1)  All languages (193)
Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
For a book that is so wonderfully written I'm not sure that I see the point... Never the less, it was a completely engaging read. ( )
  JaimieRiella | Feb 25, 2021 |
Seemed pretty highly recommended; it was available amongst the small number of e-books at my library. Tried it out. Eggggghhh. Don't care about the kid, don't care about the family taking him under their wing, don't care about that period (late 1800s), can't stand those people. ( )
  tmph | Sep 13, 2020 |
This was a well-wrought historical fiction of families in late Victorian and Edwardian England. The characters are involved with Fabianism and the arts and crafts movement, and the novel well depicts impacts of those movements on the emotional and moral life of the characters. Like pre-Raphaelite art, several of the characters are depicted as simultaneously sensitive, vigorous and corrupt, but objectively so, not with the creepy esthetic admiration for that mix that characterized the age. The story sometimes get close to potboiler territory, with too much transgressive sex to be quite believable, but it's not done in a lurid way. There is a large cast of well-defined characters, and their human individuality gives the story spark and interest, which also is sustained by lots of engaging historical matter, e.g. about the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris (Palace of Electricity, dancer Loïe Fuller, Siegfried Bing's Art Nouveau pavilion), the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the English suffragette movment, Peter Pan. I listened to it as an audio book, and that may have ameliorated the great length some reviewers found tedious; listening, I found it a good, long story, interesting at every point and moving well. ( )
  oatleyr | Aug 22, 2020 |
I’ve been looking forward to and dreading this review since I started this review dump. Looking forward, because this was a really good book, full of beautiful writing and impeccably drawn characters and themes that resonate today. Dreading, because this is a book with themes instead of a plot, which means trying to sum it all up is going to be hard.

Let’s get the writing out of the way first. Byatt’s prose is fantastic, rich and well-sculpted without feeling overwrought, and she does things with descriptions that I’m hugely envious of. She’s wonderful at creating characters with short strokes, and also quite good at the “historical” bits of historical fiction, with these infodump passages that capture whole swathes of an era without bogging you down. And the stuff she knows, and the stuff she weaves in, and the way she gives you a sense of the times…. She’s very well-versed in the period and versed in the fiction of the period too. There are fairy tales and such throughout the book that feel incredibly accurate. (I’ll get back to those.)

And characters! I don’t even know how she builds them, because this could be a biography of a family instead of a novel, they’re that detailed and complex and real. She subverts tropes, the character development goes to unexpected places though the seeds were there all along, and there are rarely easy answers about who’s good, who’s bad, who’s right, and who’s wrong. They’re truly people, which is great.

But all that can go for any Byatt novel, I think, because it happens in Possession too. The themes are what set this apart, because hoo boy. There are themes. This is essentially a discussion of what makes art and the power of art, and a critique of progressive politics and the artistic culture of the late Victorians and Edwardians. There’s stuff about how it doesn’t matter how big you talk about social reform, you’ve got to put your heart into it, and a lot on the roles of women and class and sexual morés and perversions thereof, and also a fair bit about turning blind eyes because you can’t or won’t see things. It’s designed to make you think because again, there are no easy answers and no firm “well, they should’ve done X” moments of hindsight.

But like I said, there isn’t really a plot, apart from a basic downward spiral into tragedy. (Things end badly for a lot of people, and not just because of the war.) This made it a bit hard to follow sometimes, or engage with, because a bit more foreshadowing or familiar structure would’ve been welcome, but those were blips on the radar and I never felt like I wanted to put the book down. (On the other hand, Byatt never taking the normal route meant I never knew what would happen and didn’t want to put the book down.) I’m a little less okay that some of the themes were left open and that she never outright took a stance or confirmed some things I’d read in, like the two men who might’ve been close friends or might’ve been homoromantic.

The fairy tales and Victorian fiction: I went into this knowing how the text-within-text stuff worked in Possession and expecting the same level of, er, plottiness, if that’s a word. (Possession has a lot of poetry that fleshes out and furthers a central romance.) That’s not how the stories here felt, but maybe I’m not versed enough in Victorian and Edwardian children’s lit to get it. They felt more added-in, things that deepened the world and psyches without having an impact on where the book went. Nobody reads a story and changes their mind because of it—though they certainly see performances that affect them. Disappointing but again, not a deal-breaker.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this. Setting, themes, characters, prose, the whole of it was pretty much designed for me, and it stretched my mind and boundaries without snapping them. She is good at historical fiction, y’all! So good. I definitely rec her and rec this book specifically.

Addendum: Normally, with the number and type of warnings I’m giving this, I’d downgrade it a notch or two on my rating scale, but I’m not going to. Byatt comes at the sexual stuff with a vengeance, makes things obvious without getting graphic, and consistently sides with the victims and damns the perpetrators. It’s hard sometimes, and potentially triggering, but her heart’s firmly where it should be. Same, but lesser, for the bullying and related warnings.

Warnings: This is a story that’s very concerned with sex, especially less-approved of and straight-out violent forms of sex. This includes adultery and mentions of sex work, but also rape, molestation and other forms of sexual abuse and assault, and moments that can easily be read as pedophilia or pedoastry. There’s one character who can be read as asexual due to trauma, whose arc does not end happily, and also depression, suicide, alcoholism, PTSD, and brief glimpses of war and death-in-war, some of it gory. Several instances of the g-slur as relates to fashion, if I’m remembering right. Bullying, anti-gay name calling, and institutional abuse.

9/10 ( )
  NinjaMuse | Jul 26, 2020 |
Read 2016, favourite. ( )
  sasameyuki | May 8, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
The novel has a tendency to sprawl, with too many characters and too much to say. Yet Byatt takes tender care with the reader. She is a careful guide, and though this entry is at times a lot to process, it’s a worthwhile journey.
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. The action is sometimes cut off at awkward moments by ponderous newsreel-style voice-over or potted lectures in cultural history. Startling revelations are dropped in almost nonchalantly and not picked up again until dozens or even hundreds of pages later. Byatt’s coda on the Great War, dispatched in scarcely more pages than the Exposition Universelle, is devastating in its restraint. But too often readers may feel as if they’re marooned in the back galleries of a museum with a frighteningly energetic docent.
Byatt’s characters are themselves her dutiful puppets, always squeezed and shaped for available meaning. The Children’s Book has a cumulative energy and intelligence, and the unavoidable scythe of the Great War brings its own power to the narration, but nowhere in its hundreds of pages is there a single moment like the Countess Rostova’s free and mysterious irritation.
added by jburlinson | editLondon Review of Books, James Wood (pay site) (Oct 8, 2009)
As in her Booker Prize–winning novel, Possession, here Byatt has constructed a complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction, in this case pinned to British events and characters from the 1870s to the end of the Great War...the magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes.
added by Shortride | editThe Atlantic (Oct 1, 2009)
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....

» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Byatt, A. S.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Juva, KerstiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKenzie, NicoletteNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parker, StephenCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For Jenny Uglow
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Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third. It was June 19th, 1895.
"So dangerous, don't you think, giving romantic names to little scraps who may grow up as plain as doorposts."
She didn't like to be talked about. Equally, she didn't like NOT to be talked about, when the high-minded chatter rushed on as though she wasn't there. There was no pleasing her, in fact. She had the grace, even at eleven, to know there was no pleasing her. She thought a lot, analytically, about other people's feelings, and had only just begun to realise that this was not usual, and not reciprocated.
She was not really a playwright. The auditions taught her that. A true playwright makes up people who can be inhabited by actors. A storyteller makes shadow people in the head, autonomous and complete.
She had the feeling writers often have when told perfect tales for fictions, that there was too much fact, too little space for the necessary insertion of inventions, which would appear to be lies.
Olive was sometimes frightened by the relentlessly busy inventiveness of her brain. It was good and consoling that it earned money, real bankable cheques in real envelopes. That anchored it in the real world. And the real world spouted stories wherever she looked at it.
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When Olive Wellwood's oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum--a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive's magical tales--she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends--a world that conceals more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined and that will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces.

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