We writers are cannibals. We sink our teeth into the humanity surrounding us, ripping off chunks for what we need. Even as we change names and alter situations, we are feeding on life around us. It’s inevitable; it’s who we are.
How terrible, then, the crimes of a mother who writes and writes, and uses all about her as fodder. A self-made author who has managed to escape poverty largely through the success of her fiction and who gifts her children with their own personal fables, which expand from year to year. How inevitable and awful, then, as she draws upon these stories, her children’s books, to feed both her family and her creative impulses, turning a blind eye to the cost as the world around her becomes both more open and more fierce.
Such is the core tragedy at the heart of A.S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book, a remarkable novel that manages to examine the nature of creativity, family, society, and a dozen other topics at the dawning of the modern age. At 688 pages, the book isn’t a light read and has more (and less obvious) layers than her 1990 Booker Award winner, Possession. But it is a hypnotically compelling work, mixing ideas and history with characters of immediacy and heart.
At the core of this hefty tome, which was shortlisted for last year’s Booker, are two families: the Wellwoods and the Fludds. The Wellwoods are modern thinkers, intellectuals, finding their place in late 19th century England as the world begins to change. Progress, as we first learn of it, seems to be a benevolent force in the Wellwood household.
After all, patriarch Humphrey met his wife, the beautiful Olive, at an improving lecture in London, where Olive and her less lovely sister Violet had fled from both the coal country that destroyed their parents and the humiliating life of service that appears to be their only option.
Under the seemingly benevolent wing of Humphrey, the sisters are taken into the Victorian equivalent of bourgeois bohemians, and by the time the book opens in 1895 are mixing with the likes of J.M. Barrie and Emma Goldman. Olive, by this time, has already begun to write, finding a talent for it that comes in handy as Humphrey allows his radical political ideas to interfere with his sedate banking job and their family continues to expand.
But by then, the economics are merely an excuse: both his loose philosophies and her hunger to survive have begun to exact a terrible price.
By contrast, their neighbors the Fludds are as creatively driven but much less comfortable, dependent as they are on the mercurial moods of their patriarch Benedict, a brilliant ceramicist who has victimized his family in less subtle ways. When one of the Wellwood sons finds a homeless boy, an aspiring artist, in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert museum and brings him home, ultimately to install him as an apprentice with the Fludds, the two families will find themselves linked by creativity, ambition, and unspeakable secrets.
For better or worse, many of these secrets will emerge after the old queen dies and a new age of openness begins. Tradition and folklore keep these families going–providing the basis for Olive’s stories and Benedict’s glazes. But even in these utilitarian roles, the old things are transformed, taken out for new purposes, improved (or not), and changed by use. And even while the older generation mines the past, the younger one matures into a world of emerging options.
As the 1900s progress, one son openly explores his homosexuality, while a daughter finds an outlet for her discontent in the suffragist movement. A homeless girl learns to want more than bread, to feel the power of her sexuality. And a sad, lost boy desperately hangs onto the past. And even as they age, they continue to come together in Olive’s stories, which are both more insightful and transformative of the world around her than she dare guess.
To balance a novel of ideas, one reaching from the late Victorian to the open trenches of World War I, with the intimate stories of discrete individuals, is a challenge, and it would be untrue to say that Byatt never falters. At times, particularly when she recounts Olive’s tales, the storytelling drags, weighed down by the conceit of these stories, which combine secondhand German fairy tales and the real, remembered terrors of Olive’s youth with the hidden truths about her various children.
But for a work this size, those lapses are few, and most of this book is breathtakingly good. Following the children into adulthood, those who find it, would be fascinating alone. Add in that these children make their way all over a changing Europe, as well as through evolving definitions of sexuality and gender, political and personal roles, and it is astounding. Tie it together with a larger tale of creativity, of the responsibility of the story teller to those whose stories are told, and The Children’s Book is a masterful achievement, as good as anything Byatt has yet done.
Clea Simon is the author of six mysteries, most recently Grey Matters (Severn House). Her first pet noir, Dogs Don’t Lie, will be published by Poisoned Pen Press in April 2011.