“Knowledge is power, but not if it is only partial knowledge and the knower is a dependent child, already perturbed by a changing body, squalling emotions, the sense of the outside world looming outside the garden wall, waiting to be entered. Knowledge is also fear.” (452)
The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt
I was introduced to the works of Byatt many years ago, by a well-loved college literature professor. I asked her which contemporary author and book our children and grandchildren would read in college classes, and without hesitation, she replied, “A. S. Byatt, Possession.” If Possession is my favorite Byatt novel, The Children’s Book is a close second.
It is the story of a group of families, centered around one family, the Wellwood’s, whose lives are intertwined with each other and the history of the transition of golden, shimmery, Edwardian England to the ravaged landscape of post World War I Europe.
Children’s book author, Olive Wellwood, and her husband, Humphry, have all the appearances of a charming, liberal, literate family living with their seven children on the English countryside. Olive writes books for each of her children, who are as diverse as the planets, while her spinster sister, Violet, acts as nursemaid and housekeeper.
The discovery of a homeless child, Philip, living in the basement of a museum where Wellwood friend and neighbor, Prosper Cain, works, and Philip’s eventual assimilation into the families of Kent, begins the story that reveals how adults have the power to ruin children, children have the power to overcome poor childhoods, and out of war, desolation, and betrayal, newer, healthier, stronger men and women may emerge.
I bought this book in paperback form, and was glad I did. It could not have been read on a Kindle or ereader. There were so many characters, so deeply drawn and woven around each other, often with similar names and acting as foils for one another, that I had to flip back and forth throughout the novel.
It is not a light read, and I would not recommend it to readers as such. It takes work, but it’s well worth it. I wish I could have read it in a college class, so that I could study both its content and the history it’s based on more deeply. It is a book that wants to be discussed.
If you enjoy dense, complex, rich, historical novels, I highly recommend The Children’s Book. It is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.