The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt follows a handful of families in the late Victorian period and through to the end of World War I. The mother of one of the families, Olive Wellwood, is a children’s author and throughout the lives of her own children, she writes them each their own personal storybook, and the stories develop as the children grow up.
I want to start by saying I did enjoy this book, it was fascinating with characters I was genuinely interested in, but, I have to say, I have a few gripes about it. Firstly, there are too many characters. I struggled to remember which children belonged to which family, and kept getting them mixed up, Dorothy with Florence or Griselda, Charles with Geraint, and could never remember where Hedda came in the family, and those are just a few of the children in the book.
Secondly, while I understand the author was trying to explain what’s happening in the world as the story develops, there were a few places where the author spent one or two chapters just explaining the history of that period, with no mention of any of the characters. When we discussed this at my reading group, I wondered if I was so irritated by this both because I’d recently read a few books set in the same period that integrated this information into the story of the characters rather than just simply stating it, and because I already knew the history because of my recent reads. The other members didn’t seem too bothered by it, but I felt for a 600+ page book, this could easily have been edited out without losing anything from the story.
Finally, just a couple of small ones, but near the beginning, the daughters of one of the characters are named and described, yet a few pages later when they arrive at the house of one of the other families, they are named and described again. Why do that when you’ve already described them? Also, one of the characters, Charles at times goes by the name of Karl, and is sometimes referred to as Charles/Karl, which I personally found really irritating. I know the times he’s choosing to be called Karl over the times he feels he needs to be Charles, so why the Charles/Karl moniker?
I feel like I need to go back to the good points, for a bit of balance. I loved some of the characters, particularly the girls. Dorothy, Florence and Griselda were believable and genuine, and I think the way she describes the various choices they make and the routes their lives take felt possible. I felt a real affection for them, particularly Dorothy, by the end of the book. Their stories alone would make the book worth reading, but there are others who are interesting as well, making me glad I had read it.