AS Byatt is an unapologetically high-brow novelist. Incredibly learned, scholastically decorated, and given, rather unsurprisingly, to voracious research, she is in no mood to dumb down for anyone’s benefit. The Children’s Book is touted as a worthy bookend to her 1990 masterpiece Possession in both scale and ambition. There is ample justification in this.
What is the price of artistic output? This is the essential question the book asks. One of the triumphs of this novel is to make art both germane and familiar in a way that would be unimaginable in modern times. Byatt examines this question with the use of an enormous cast, loosely broken into three families, each with an artistic head. Olive Wellwood is a children’s writer for whom each of her own children is an unwitting muse, yet she neglects to nurture them as a mother should. Though Olive’s writing is underpinned by financial need, she values her art more than her progeny. At one point she finds a growing baby inside her a most inconvenient and unwelcome presence. Benedict Fludd, a gifted potter, is something of a grotesque counterpoint to Olive as his children experience the dark and unpredictable edge of their father’s creative urges – he forces them to perform lurid sexual poses which he captures in clay and proceeds to sequester the evidence. Prosper Cain, the patriarch of the third major family, and an old friend to Fludd, is curator at a major museum.
This is a panoramic book that tries, and palpably succeeds, to capture the age via the full spectrum of life – carnal trysts behind closed doors, tortured conversations on cold blustery beaches, contemplation in churches and classrooms and homes on everything from woman’s suffrage to sexual freedom to the definition of a good childhood. At the end of the book it seems as if we have grown up with these people, engaged in the midsummer performances of Shakespeare, sat entrance exams to university, stood in the fearsome heat of an open kiln, caught the dual meanings in the smiles and frowns of those around us, lived through the tragedy of those cases, like Olive’s oldest son Tom, in which we never really knew what was going on until it was too late. And finally the Great War, which has been approaching but never looming large, unalterably, arrives.
These are 617 pages of inestimably engaging reading, thick with detail and incident, succeeding in giving a febrile currentness to the period. The beauty is in the magnitude of the effort, grand without ever being grandiose. The prose is never ostentatious, making the reading easy and gripping, serving you perfectly as you hunker down for the journey. Yes, with a book of this length, catching all the plot turns with a matador-like flourish is a difficult business. True, some of the research adds a certain corpulence, almost to a fault, to the narrative. But even these didactical sections bear a tone which is unhurried and unselfconscious, giving life to descriptions of everything from pottery, to academia, Edwardian furnishings, and the vagaries of the creative writing process. In the end this is a novel reaching into the rarefied ether of ideas where few novels will go. Byatt has never pandered to our impoverished wit, and in her seventy fourth year, is not about to start.
Any Cop?: Read this book to remind yourself of everything great fiction can be.