12/26/2010 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Children's Book : The Heavenly Hell of Childhood

In the life of a reader--and by a reader I mean someone who has always read for pleasure--it is doubtful that any books have as much impact, in the end, as the ones we read as children. Though my memories of their plots and characters are foggy, the stunningly illustrated hardcover books by E. Nesbit that graced the shelves in my neighborhood library in Queens--The Enchanted Castle, The Bastables--contributed in some essential way to the person I was to become; and to this day I am heartbroken that soon after my family moved, the library sold these exquisite books for $2 each in their annual booksale in order to make room for more DVDs and books by R.L. Stine. ("No one reads E. Nesbit anymore," a friend said to me in defense of the library, and that is probably true--how can anyone read E. Nesbit if she has vanished from the libraries?)

The dreamlike memories I have of those foundational, mythically important books resurfaced when I first began A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. The first 50 or so pages of the book were almost like therapy, transporting me back to the magic I thought had been irretrievably lost with childhood, and to the feelings associated with it--but this time, from an adult perspective, and with an awareness of the dark currents tugging just beneath the surface.

The story opens in a charming setting that evokes E. Nesbit's books, and for a reason: much of the story revolves around the Edwardian children's writer Olive Wellwood, a character very much inspired by E. Nesbit herself. The children, for whom the book is literally and ironically and metaphorically titled (that's A.S. Byatt for you) are running wild in a paradise of a home with generous parents, a forest at their doorstep, and the freedom to imagine and create. We see this bountiful home through the eyes of Phillip, a homeless young pauper that the Wellwoods have taken in, on charitable impulse.

The kindness of the adults at the start of the book, in so readily opening their home to young Phillip and becoming concerned for his welfare, is in keeping with the atmosphere of a children's book that pervades this novel's beginning. Here people are kind, the woods are mysterious and inviting, and the end of each day is resolved with a warm bath and dinner with interested, intelligent parents. It seems altogether too innocent and childlike to be a Byatt novel, unless you notice the hints at the beginning that all is not quite as it seems. Even when Phillip is being bathed at the beginning by Olive's capable sister Violet--who seems to embody the sort of selfless, bustling figure that children often find comforting--there is a subtle tremor of something being "off," an undercurrent. A puppet show of Cinderella is dark and violent as Grimm's fairy tale, mutilations and all. Political altercations hint at a threat to the security of Todefright, their fancifully named home, due to the social activism of Humphry Wellwood, Olive's husband.

But these are truly only hints, and so while it is not entirely surprising when the book veers away from idyllic innocence and full-on into Byatt's more accustomed territory--erotic secrets, twisted relationships, abuse--it is like a dash of cold water that leaves the reader gasping. There is a real sense of loss, for the reader as well as for the characters who are experiencing it. And there is also a thrill, that perverse thrill of a child listening at the door and hearing too much. We suspected the adults were fallible, that bad things lived in the dark. Now we know it for certain.

The Children's Book is much more than the story of one family. Focusing on various, interlinking families, the book is an epic of England at the turn of the twentieth century, depicting the intense struggles of that time regarding economic disparities, international politics, and women's suffrage, and culminating--as of course it must--with the apocalypse of the first World War.

One of the most potent themes of this book--which otherwise has many, many themes--is the dark and even destructive heart of creativity. Most of the artists such as Olive, the author Herbert Methley, and the potter Benedict Fludd, make use of other people, even destroy them, for the sake of their art. Of these, Olive is seemingly the most benign, and the most subtle, yet her actions have the most catastrophic consequences.

Olive writes a continuous story for each of her children, though it's clear that she does this as much for herself as for them, to feed her addiction to writing stories. In fact, Olive's only real maternal attachment is to her son Tom, and possibly to the youngest, Harry. Her relationship with Tom is all-encompassing for him, and his story, that of the hero "Tom Underground," is the one she writes the most passionately.

Tom's first contact with reality outside his home sends him into an emotional tailspin from which he never recovers. As the fictional "Tom Underground" journeys into dark places, makes discoveries, and conquers his fears, the real Tom retreats from reality, and from anything that might disturb his fragile equilibrium. The fictional Tom is on a quest for his shadow, which was stolen; that shadow is the real Tom, who refuses to be found.

The book is punctuated with stories written by Olive--bright children's stories which cast dark shadows all along the length of the book, as their import becomes increasingly clear. "Words have their own life," says a character in one of the stories--a quote characteristic of their luminous, mythic language--and for Olive, the boundary between words and life is particularly indistinct. In each of the stories recounted here, her most suppressed feelings and fears reveal themselves--and each prove to be prophetic in the most devastating of ways.

Olive's story in this book is one thread in an intricate tapestry of stories, but perhaps the most interesting. The immense multiplicity of facets to this book is both awe-inspiring and a fatal flaw; stripped of much of its detail, some of the truly gem-like moments in the book would shine more brightly. Amid the lush descriptions of art exhibitions, puppet shows, and historical events, the most intriguing image of all might be an imaginary one: Olive's image of herself walking "across the moor, in the wind, with the closed, calm parcel, containing the obscene things." I would have happily read a novel that just followed this one woman in her journey across the moors--a woman whose true nature only emerges in her fiction for children, in ways unknown even to herself.