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A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

9780307398079In 2003, A.S. Byatt sparked a minor furore by daring to criticise J.K. Rowling. Writing in The New York Times, she dismissed the Harry Potter novels as little more than “jokey latency fantasies”, before going further to declare “Ms Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.”

The reaction was as swift as it was predictable. Byatt was pilloried as a joyless academic, a bitter, snobbish failure threatened by Rowling’s success, her work dismissed as a pretentious confection of tinder-dry, middle-class clichés.

Yet what many of Byatt’s detractors missed was the fact that Byatt was not arguing from some supposed academic high ground, nor was she suggesting there was not a place for uncritical enjoyment of stories of the fantastic. Instead she was arguing that in losing sight of the darkness that lies at the heart of truly great children’s fantasy we give up something of ourselves, something we no longer seem able to tell that we have lost.

This sense of the darkness at the heart of great children’s fantasy is written deep into the fabric of Byatt’s vast, kaleidoscopic and often dazzling new novel, The Children’s Book, which uses the form as a device to explore a series of often deeply troubling questions about the relationship between art and life, the personal cost of the artistic life to those supposedly in the artist’s care, and the complacency and self-absorption which are so often disguised by progressive politics.

The sheer profusion of characters and plotlines that fill the densely plotted pages of The Children’s Book militate against précis, yet it is, in essence, the story of the sprawling web of relationships which move around and between three very different, yet interconnected families, the Wellwoods, the Fludds and the Cains.

Perhaps appropriately for a novel so fascinated by the tropes and devices of fairy tales, the story begins in 1895 with the discovery of a runaway boy, Philip Warren, living in the tunnels beneath the still-unfinished Victoria and Albert Museum. Sympathetic to Philip’s predicament, children’s writer Olive Wellwood, who is visiting Prosper Cain, the Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the Museum, and whose son, Tom is one of Philip’s captors, decides to take him with her to her family home at Todefright, on the Kentish Downs.

In a different sort of book Philip might be the intruder from another world whose appearance destabilizes the comfortable middle-class world of his rescuers, butThe Children’s Book is resistant to such simple devices. Instead Philip finds himself given over to the uncertain care of the potter, Benedict Fludd, whose chaotic home at Purchase House lies not far from Todefright, a turn of events the ambitious Philip quickly turns to his own advantage.

Yet for all that his appearance does not destabilize the world of the Fludds and the Wellwoods, Philip’s appearance does bring into focus the lives of the children of the various households at the novel’s centre.

To an outsider these might well be exemplars of a particular fantasy of late-Victorian childhood. Brought up in large, rambling households, the children are allowed seemingly endless freedom, left to explore both the natural world and the worlds of their imagination as they see fit.

But The Children’s Book is interested in doing more than revisiting these fantasies. Instead it brings a very contemporary unease about the sexualization and abuse of children to bear upon them.

The result is deeply unsettling, not least because so much is left unspoken. Time and again the rhetoric of personal freedom which underpins the Fabian principles of the adult characters offers a pretext for exploitation of those who are weaker – and younger – than themselves.

Outwardly at least, this fascination with the hypocrisies of utopian thinking has parallels in the sprawling third part of Byatt’s Virgin in the Garden Tetralogy, Babel Tower, with its peculiar Blakean fantasies of the perfect society (as indeed Fludd has echoes of that book’s mad prophet, Jude). But in The Children’s Book it serves a different purpose, offering a backdrop against which the book’s deeper interest in the sublimated terrors and traumas which give shape to children’s fantasy can be explored.

Yet simultaneously, the novel feeds the motifs and imagery of these stories back into itself, often to powerful effect. Puppets come to life, children seek refuge in the underground, characters discover they are not who they had thought themselves to be. And finally, with almost casual brutality, the underground world to which the stories themselves constantly return becomes the actual underground of the trenches of Flanders.

It is difficult to imagine a writer other than Byatt producing a novel such as The Children’s Book. Prodigiously learned, immense in implication, almost compulsively readable, it is at once a cultural history of a remarkably rich and particular kind and a densely organic and complex work of the imagination, one which reminds us not just of the power of story, but of its dangers and deceits.

First published in The Weekend Australian, May 2009.