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A Sterling 'Book' of a Golden Age

By Keith Donohue
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK

By A. S. Byatt

Knopf Doubleday. 688 pp. $46.99

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In 1990, A.S. Byatt received the Booker Prize for "Possession," a postmodern masterpiece that is, in part, a historical romance set in the late Victorian era. "The Children's Book," her brilliant new novel, which has a good chance of winning the 2009 Booker Prize on Tuesday evening, takes a jump forward to fin de si├Ęcle Europe, from the end of the Victorian era to the beginning of the modern age. Bristling with life and invention, it is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer.

Set primarily in the downs and marshes of the Kent countryside and the southeastern coast at Dungeness, the story also flings characters to London, Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps and the battlefields of Europe, where real historical figures such as J.M. Barrie and Emma Goldman mix with invented characters including layabout students, Fabian socialists, potters, puppeteers, randy novelists and poets in the trenches of France. In its encyclopedic form, "The Children's Book" is a kind of anatomy of the age in which the young men and women of the Edwardian era were confronted by a rapidly changing society and the grim reality of the Great War.

But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. The novel spirals out from the families and social circle of the young writer Olive Wellwood, her sister Violet and husband, Humphry. They live in a charmed home in the countryside with their seven children, though we follow most closely the older two, Tom, who is a sort of "lost" child more at home in the woods, and his more practical and determined sister Dorothy.

Olive is a famous writer of children's books, in the golden age of fiction about children, inventing fairy tales drawn from her reading of folk tales and fantasy, observation of her children's lives, the magic of the Kent landscape and pieces of her own childhood. After her husband resigns his position with a bank, Olive becomes the chief breadwinner for the family. In addition to her published work, she creates for each child a private story, bound in a special journal.

Byatt describes several of those books, but she unlocks the one for Tom, Olive's oldest son, with devastating effect. The story -- about a boy who loses his shadow and must search for it underground -- closely mirrors Tom's internal and psychological life. When she mines her son's story for a new play, "Tom Underground," a darker take on the motifs of Peter Pan, her son becomes truly lost.

When asked by a journalist to explain the private children's books, Olive says: " 'Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really -- is really what holds it all together.' She gave a little laugh, and said 'Well, it makes money, it does hold it all together.' "

This story about the nature of art and commerce and the private influences on public performance is at the core of the book, but it is only one of several interlinked story lines. Behind the public story of Olive and Humphry's marriage is a series of private indiscretions, including some revelations as startling as those in Byatt's novella "Angels and Insects." On the surface, middle-class Victorian and Edwardian England may have been obsessed with appearances and propriety, but as with every age, all-too-human desires lurk just underground.

Secret passions electrify the stories of the other families, too, in this multilayered novel. There's an investment banker and his German wife and their anarchist son; the mercurial Arts and Crafts ceramicist Benedict Fludd and his addled family; and a widowed military man whose Cambridge Apostle son is struggling with his homosexuality. Add to this heady mix a true lost boy who escaped from a pottery factory and is discovered hiding below the Victoria and Albert Museum. All those characters connect in a tangled web, often erotic and frequently just this side of madness.

Through these complex personal tales, Byatt shows the aesthetics of the age, which, in response to the tremendous changes wrought by the rise of industrialism, emphasized the work of individual craftsmen. "The Children's Book" holds a mirror to the new middle class during an era of growing appreciation for children and greater sexual freedom for women and for the love that dares not speak its name. That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy.

Donohue is the author of the novels "Angels of Destruction" and "The Stolen Child."

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