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Plot Junkie: The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt

December 28, 2011

100. The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt

I read this last year, in between finals and seminar papers and the million other things that crop up at the end of a semester, and so kept getting distracted and forgetting what was going on in the book. I decided I absolutely had to read it again because (a) I’m a little obsessed with Byatt’s work, (b) the period in which it is set is absolutely fascinating (1895-1920), and (c) I just hate feeling like I missed something good.

And I had. Missed something good, that is. Byatt is brilliant. I’m hardly the first person to notice, but still. There you have it, my personal opinion. Don’t get me wrong—this book requires a lot of effort. Seriously. Byatt writes for the person who just, you know, knows about William Morris and Oscar Wilde and the Paris Exhibition and the Fabians. And if you aren’t that person (what, you don’t have a PhD in English history either? do tell.) then expect to do a bit of research.

But honestly, this is why I love Byatt’s work–it’s not difficult to be more knowledgeable than me about something–but to make it so enthralling that I absolutely have to know? Fantastic.

So the story starts in 1895 with a sprawling, seemingly idyllic, Arts and Crafty family. Olive, the mother, is the primary breadwinner—she writes children’s fantasy, (kind of reminiscent of George McDonald’s stuff: The Princess and Curdie or The Princess and the Goblin. All very dark and twisty and vaguely Germanic.) Papa Wellwood (name escapes me) works at a bank but writes anonymous news articles criticizing banking practices in England. Sister of Olive—Violet?—has lived with the family since her sister’s marriage and is more a mother to the children (of which there are many) than Olive. And she’s more of a mother to some of them than any of the children know. But that’s a miniscule fragment of the story.

And Olive creates and destroys her characters—and sometimes her children—without really acknowledging the damage. Until she has to. But that’s a miniscule fragment of the story.

And the children all grow up in weird and fascinating ways, as children are wont to do, finding out things about their parents and themselves and the world that reframes reality into fantastical dimensions. But that’s a miniscule fragment of the story too.

But all of these miniscule fragments—pieces of a mosaic, if you will—form the most absolutely intriguing and addictive story. I can’t describe. You must read for yourself. Seriously.

But make notecards. There’s a cast of at least 30, and you’ll get completely and totally confused if you don’t remember that Charles Wellwood changed his name to Karl after he went to Germany to meet the Fabians, or if Phillip Warren’s sister’s name momentarily escapes you.

Read this book review from the New York Times. Or this one from The Guardian.

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