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In June 1895, a child is secretly living in the South Kensington Museum (later to become the Victoria and Albert), hiding from poverty in the one place that feeds his inchoate passion -- his driving, almost physical need -- "to make something." So begins "The Children's Book" by A.S. Byatt, a vivid and erudite portrait of an age, a family chronicle, a sweeping saga that dramatizes the interplay -- and frequent collisions -- between life and art, politics and personal life, fairy tales and reality, creativity and responsibility, Germany and England. It is a stunning achievement: a novel of ideas that crackles with passion, energy and emotive force.
"The Children's Book," which was short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize, is densely populated by "socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers," with suffragettes, debutantes, New Women, puppeteers and financiers woven in for good measure. At the center are four families living in the Kent countryside, loosely orbiting around Todefright, the rambling country home of Olive Wellwood. Born into poverty, she has escaped by marrying a (reluctant) banker and becoming a successful author of children's books; far from the mining town of her childhood, she now lives a life informed by progressive social values, parties, culture and creativity, although the instability of this structure is exposed through the book's mounting revelations.
Few writers are Byatt's equal in conveying the textured subjectivity of artists and writers, their ways of seeing, their almost compulsive urge to create. On nature walks, Phillip, the museum runaway, sees crane-flies and makes "a geometric web of their touching bodies"; inflamed by a passion for ceramics, he sees the ocean's colors as a series of glazes, woodland ferns as designs for tiles. Olive, who is sometimes "frightened by the relentlessly busy inventiveness of her brain," communicates with her children most authentically through the private books she writes for each of them, fragments of which flow through the novel.
These fragments, which fascinate and delight, also repel because, as Byatt elsewhere remarks, "all writing is an exercise of power." Speaking of the seeds of "The Children's Book," Byatt comments that she was dramatically interested by the fact that "the children of the great writers for children often came to unhappy ends." Thus she does not tread lightly over the dark side of creation, the self-absorption, irresponsibility and worse: the character of Benedict Fludd, a virtuoso potter, dramatizes the appalling wreckage genius can create among everyone -- and most particularly children -- under the influence of its magnetic pull. Creation and destruction walk hand in hand through the novel, so it is fitting that "The Children's Book" ends at the close of World War I, that colossal waste of a generation.
Byatt's prose ranges from ecstatically lovely descriptions of works of art to brisk exposition of social movements; her characterizations are nuanced and moving. Even though I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of the characters when I began the novel, I came to care about every one of the 20-odd children in the second generation, to the extent that I did not want "The Children's Book" to end. Even though it weighs in at a healthy 675 pages, I still wanted more of this ambitious, compelling novel, certainly Byatt's best since the Booker-winning "Possession: A Romance," and possibly her best ever.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.