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What does it mean, that we are shaped by the people around us? By the stories we tell ourselves, and are told by others? What does that create?
Those are some of the questions AS Byatt considered as she wrote “The Children’s Book”. The title comes from the practice of one of the characters, Olive, of writing a story for each of her children, a special magic story in which they are the hero or heroine. That’s not the only story Olive’s large brood of children are told, and the process by which those stories shape them is the psychological centerpiece of the book.
But the book isn’t just a psychological unpacking of development: it’s also a fantastic piece of historical fiction. The bulk of the book is set in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, and Byatt makes the time come alive. She delves into the lives of men and women of all classes, into their hopes, aspirations, and desires, and she creates a cast of characters whose ways of interacting with the world are each unique and fascinating.
The best historical fiction is not about “modern women/men stuck in the past,” but rather about people, people who no matter what time they are born in have their own hopes and dreams, fears and desires. In each period, the way their lives are shaped by their selves changes. Sometimes, as in the Victorian age, women who wanted a career were not allowed to marry. Single motherhood is a difficult option that women, nonetheless, have been willing to make sacrifices for in many different periods.
Not only has Byatt brought a period alive in this book, but a staggering cast of characters. There must be two dozen, with an ever-changing web of relationships knitting them together–not a book for the faint of heart.
In an interesting way, “The Children’s Book” is inarguable an epic. It’s big, and has a big cast. But it bucks the conventions of an epic, choosing depth over breadth, focusing on a small period of time and a handful of locations. And this focus is the novel’s strength, because when calamity strikes in the looming First World War, the true fragility of this complicated world becomes painfully clear. It’s a work of beauty, and anyone who like a good doorstopper book should read it.