At nearly 700 pages ‘The Children’s Book’ is a mammoth novel. Spanning a quarter of a century from 1895 to the end of World War One it charts the lives of two families, the Wellwoods and the Fludds, artistic and literary and full of rich Edwardian social ideas. It is a portrait of childhoods in a bygone age, about dreams destroyed by the carnage of war.
The book begins in the Kensington Museum where Olive Wellwood, a successful children’s writer, is asking for guidance on a new novel. A poor runaway from the Midlands is hiding there, and Olive takes him home to care for him. The Wellwoods are the epitome of the wealthy bohemian Edwardian family and throughout the novel they discuss left wing politics, philosophy and the social issues of the day with their grand Bloomsbury Group type friends. Most importantly the book follows the children through their lives, from the imaginative optimism of their childhood until war strikes.
‘The Children’s Book’ is similar to Byatt’s 1990 novel ‘Possession’, but whilst the latter tackled the topic of Victorian academia ‘The Children’s Book’ is a soap opera about writers, social and political ideas, children’s stories, and dark family secrets. It is a beautifully written book and the language sparkles throughout, especially in the examples of Olive’s children’s stories which we are treated to throughout the book.
At times the book can feel like a history lecture, and Byatt seems too clever for her own good when preaching the big social ideas of the time. Furthermore, those big ideas are at times convoluted and overpowering.
Ultimately though, The Children’s Book is a powerful, moving and captivating read. At times it is an effort to read and the action moves slowly. However, it is well worth the toil: this is a novel that will teach you and move you, and stay with you forever.