A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel Possession was a hot, epistolary Victorian romance framed as a literary mystery, complete with epic poems, lost letters, adultery, suicide, lesbians, a bastard child, a grave robbery and hilarious send-ups of contemporary academics. No wonder it won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide: it satisfies every possible literary constituency.
Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book (Knopf; 675 pages), her ninth work of fiction since Possession, earned a spot on the Man Booker short list and has been hailed as a return to peak form. It's not quite that good it has Possession's omnivorous range but not its propulsive discipline. Still, The Children's Book is a rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act.
The novel opens in 1895 in a London museum, where young Philip Warren, an aspiring potter, is sketching the metalwork and camping out secretly amid the statuary. On the lam from a bleak working-class future in England's industrial north, Philip has the good fortune to be discovered by two sympathetic boys, one of whom is the son of children's-book author Olive Wellwood. Soon our ceramist is apprenticed to Wellwood family friend Benedict Fludd, a master potter of the day.
The progressive, prolific Wellwoods prolific in both writing and childbearing, Olive and Humphry have a brood of seven and their artsy friends and acolytes form the core of Byatt's novel, and they are an invigorating bunch. Fin de siècle England was bursting with new ideas and beliefs (socialism, suffragism, anarchism, free love), and Byatt's characters are exuberant participants, joining, lecturing, writing, rebelling, and navigating the fallout when their experiments (particularly in the free-love category) come to grief.
Olive, who is the picture of hospitable fertility she describes herself to Philip as a "tree with birds in it" represents that brand of early20th century literary imagination that found its best expression in works for children. (Byatt modeled her on E. Nesbit, author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It.) What could be more delightful than a mother who writes personalized fairy tales for each of her kids? Except, of course, that fairy tales can be the darkest kind there are, and in the case of Olive (and Fludd and most of the other creative types portrayed here), a life in the arts has psychic costs. Often it's the next generation that pays. Eventually the children, in particular Olive's daughter Dorothy, eclipse their parents in both the plot and our sympathies. This makes sense in a novel about a transitional era, but it also makes for a disorienting reading experience. For several hundred pages, it's hard to know which characters most deserve our attention.