The Children's Book by AS Byatt


While I was away, I finally finished reading The Children's Book by AS Byatt, and found it both fascinating and moving. It has a huge cast of characters, all of them flawed, but most of them redeemed in one way or another, and rarely have I read a book where I cared so much about so many people. It begins in 1895 and is set among a community of creative, Bohemian people - Fabian Society members, devotees of the late 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement, writers, sculptors, radicals. It follows two generations of this community until the end of the First World War. At first, it appears that the children are leading the most idyllic lives possible, but it's soon revealed that there are times when the parents' creative talents are being explored at the expense of their children, and that the relationships between parents and children, and between the children themselves, are far more complicated than it first seems.

One theme that recurs throughout involves late-Victorian/Edwardian notions of childhood - this was perhaps the first time that childhood came to be celebrated in literature, by authors like E. Nesbitt, JM Barrie and Lewis Carroll. But how much of this was actually about adults wanting to remain children, while neglecting the needs of their own offspring? The consequences of the parents' actions continue to impact on the children throughout the novel as they grow up, and the First World War at the end almost seems to be the culmination of that - one generation's mistakes having a devastating impact on the next.

I wholly recommend The Children's Book, even if some of the descriptions of fin-de-siecle art, literature and politics can drag at times.


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