"Three or four families in an English village is the very thing to work on." -- Jane Austen
It's probably quite unfair of me to begin this review by comparing it to another book. I'm sure it was probably unwise for me to read The Children's Book almost immediately after reading and reviewing what appears to be a similar book, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. Honestly, it just worked out that way -- I'd actually started The Children's Book first, then realized I might not finish it in time to start The Forgotten Garden which was a book group selection. (Since I run the book group, it would have been inexcusable for me to not to have finished it in time). But as usual, I digress.
Anyhow, at first glance both of them are historical fiction, mostly set during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Both of them heavily feature English fairytales, and have central characters who are female writers and storytellers, and include entire sections with examples of the aforementioned tales, which are original to the books. Both of them are long -- The Forgotten Garden is just over 550 pages, and The Children's Book weighs in at 675. But almost immediately, I realized they are actually vastly different.
I can only give the bare bones of the setup for The Children's Book, because there is so much packed into it. It's the story of four loosely connected families in Kent and London, set around the Fabian and Arts and Crafts movements in England around of the turn of the 20th century. The story follows the parents and children against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian Era, the Edwardian Era, and finishes during WWI.
The story begins in the South Kensington Museum, which will someday be known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Two young teenage boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, are watching a third boy sketching in the museum. They discover the boy, Philip Warren, has been hiding out in the museum's basement, having escaped poverty and dire conditions of the pottery works in the Five Towns area. Tom's mother is Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales, who brought her son to the museum while she was consulting about her book with Julian's father, a curator at the museum. Olive is not only a writer, she's a socially progressive do-gooder type, and she decides to take Philip under her wing. She brings him home to her ramshackle farm in Kent, where he is exposed to artistic and socially conscious people who change his life, including the family of Benedict Fludd, a brilliant and eccentric potter.
Through Philip, the reader is introduced to a whole network of socially progressive people, artists, writers, craftspeople, and puppeteers who make up Olive's world, in England and on the Continent. However, the novel is not so much about Philip -- we meet a whole generation of children who are growing up in a rather bohemian lifestyle. The Children's Book basically a really great history lesson about English society as it transitions from the Victorian Era to the horrors of the Great War, with these families as a microcosm, if that makes any sense.
Where The Forgotten Garden is narrowly focused on one family's mystery, The Children's Book is about the upheaval of an entire generation from childhood to adulthood. You could easily read The Forgotten Garden on a long flight, but The Children's Book took me well over a week of serious reading. It is jam-packed with characters (seriously, I wish I'd made a chart when I started), fictional and real, plus history and commentary, which sadly, I think is to its detriment.
I loved learning about these families and their world, but Byatt packs so much into it, the narrative thread of the characters tends to get lost. I could seriously have imagined this book split into two or even three volumes. I loved learning about the Arts and Crafts movement, and the changing role of women, and the Suffragettes (to name but a few of the topics), but I felt like she was so into writing about the history that sometimes the characters were shoved aside. Byatt often ends up telling us what the characters are doing and saying to get through the historical context, and less showing. Some of the historical and political tangents were actually rather dry and sometimes preachy, and at the end, I wasn't even sure what happened to some of the most important characters. I do wonder if she just ran out of steam or needed to finish on deadline.
I really enjoyed most of this book but I seriously think it could have used some editing. Still, I'm sure it will make my list of Top Ten Reads of 2013.