Elevate Difference

The Children's Book

When I think of the works of author A. S. Byatt, I think of layers built upon layers and stories within stories. The first novel I read by Byatt was Possession, and I found the story of two modern day English professors solving a love mystery enjoyable. With that said, however, I also found the book to be overly detailed, thinking at the time that 100 pages could easily have been edited out. When I delved into The Children's Book, I expected a similar reading experience, but I was pleasantly surprised that, at almost 700 pages, the novel flows nicely.

The setting for The Children's Book is Edwardian England during the years 1895-1919. The story surrounds the Wellwood family and their mysterious almost dreamlike existence. Olive Wellwood is the matriarch of the family and she, along with her husband Humphrey, are parents to seven very curious and passionate children. Olive writes children’s fairy tales for a living and for each of her children, she writes a special private story. Some of Olive’s tales are frightening and the reader who looks closely can see a correlation to her daily life.

The opening of the novel shows Olive taking in a young homeless boy named Philip who is a gifted artist. He becomes an apprentice to Benedict Fludd, a potter whose many dark secrets are hidden within his art work similar to how Olive’s fairy tales are layered with secrets that cannot be spoken out loud. Philip is an outsider, an observer of these two unusual families, the Fludds and the Wellwoods, and the reader experiences his surprise when mysteries are revealed and begin to unravel.

The Children's Book is hard to describe in a short review. For me, the dominate theme is a mother’s love for her child and this is demonstrated with not only Olive but also with her sister, Violet, who is a caregiver for the children. The reader is introduced to many characters right at the beginning and the flow of the novel seems to focus on one or two people, a conversation or a situation and then move on rather quickly to a different experience. As guests arrive at the family estate for the annual midsummer party, the reader is treated to a tantalizing description of plays, marionette shows, feasts and heated political discussion, a perfect forewarning of things to come. Byatt incorporates, in interesting detail, the progressive political beliefs of the Wellwood family and their friends. The Children's Book is a story within a story and is layers upon layers where so much is happening that the reader is afraid to blink her eye for fear of missing something important.

Written by: Su Lin Mangan, December 3rd 2009