Last night I finally finished ‘The Children’s Book’ by AS Byatt. I feel like I’ve been reading it forever. I started it one month ago on Koh Chang and I know this because I used some hotel notepaper to write a list of the characters as they were introduced.
I’m not ashamed to say that I picked the book off the shelf because of the stunning cover. My scan here doesn’t do it justice. There’s a lot of gold (the title, the border decoration, and on the artefact) set against a rich mottled blue. It’s beautiful. I read the blurb and much of the novel is set in Romney Marsh which is not far from where my novel is set. The story follows two generations from the end of the 19th century to the end of the First World War.
The story is set constantly within the context of the day – and that’s nearly twenty five years of ‘the day.’ Often it wasn’t woven into the story and the narrative stops for large chunks of political and social comment and background. That said I’m fascinated by the period but it may make it hard to read for those that aren’t. In this respect, it reminded me of Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. Not just that the period is similar (slightly earlier in the nineteenth century from memory but I can’t recall when the story closes though it does cover the second generation of characters) but also the documentation of long passages of research about psychiatry. Both books took me a long time to read because I am not a skipper of such bits!
The story’s main focus is the family of Olive and Humphrey Wellwood but it extends in some detail to other, interconnected families and individuals. Olive is a famous writer of children’s stories (at a time when it was suggested that the best writing of the day was written for children but read by adults, eg JM Barrie, E Nesbitt and Kenneth Grahame.)
It opens at the V&A Museum when two of the children whose lives we follow discover a boy from ‘Burslem in t’potteries’ hiding in the bowels of the Museum. The boys take their discovery to the grown ups: Olive, and Prosper Cain, the Special Keeper of Precious Metals, whom Olive is consulting for research for one of her books. But this is no Oliver Twist: these people are artists and Fabians and they take the boy in and he is found a place with a local master potter, Benedict Fludd. The Wellwood’s Midsummer party follows rapidly on and we meet more characters, neighbour and theatre director Augustus Steyning and his guest, and old acquaintance of Olive, German puppetmaster, Anselm Stern. Further characters are introduced and the stage is set for the subsequent twenty odd years of saga.
I loved it and I’d really recommend the book to anyone who’s interested in the era.
Now, what book to choose next?