'The Children's Book,' by A.S. Byatt

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THE CHILDREN'S BOOK,

by A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 675 pp., $26.95.

'The Children's Book," A.S. Byatt's masterpiece of a novel, opens in 1895 in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where two boys - the sons of middle-class artists and collectors - discover a dirty working-class boy hiding in a sarcophagus to be close to the pottery. Hundreds of pages, scores of characters and several eras later, the novel closes in a London parlor, in the final days of the First World War.

Reading the novel feels as if it takes all those years - it certainly takes you across a lifetime of emotions. I began the book in the bathtub. My heart was light. I finished the book on the train, five stops past my destination, lost in some blasted urban hell, with tears streaming down my face.

Olive Wellwood is a writer of children's stories. She lives with her husband in a warm, rambling Arts and Crafts house where they host the artists and thinkers of the era. They take lovers - some of whom they admit to, and some of whom they don't. They raise a huge brood of children, some made together, some separately. The children grow up free, ignorant of their complicated origins, surrounded by art and beauty. It is a mellow, richly tinted time that Byatt calls "The Age of Gold."

Except that Olive Wellwood writes fairy stories for each of her children. For her eldest and favorite son, she writes a story about a boy who wanders forever in an underground world, searching for his shadow. For her most difficult daughter, she writes a story about a prickly little girl who is sometimes a hedgehog. Olive adds to these stories week by week, and we see how Olive's fantasies for her children control them, mapping magical destinies they may never escape.

Meanwhile, Benedict Fludd is a brilliant potter and a violent, isolating man. He lives in a miserable house far from anywhere, and his wife and two daughters wander the rooms, cold, entrapped and silent. As Fludd's pots grow more and more ornate, their glazes more miraculously colored, his daughters grow colder and more disturbed, until we learn that he has literally been casting their genitals in porcelain.

As the chapters unfold, Olive's children and Benedict's children begin to feel the binding power of the art that seems to dictate their futures. As they enter their teens, they understand some of the lies that have structured their lives. The colors of their world fade. The Edwardian era dawns, with its new, bright sense of fun and its motorcars: "The Age of Silver."

Does a mother's fantasy for her son, or a father's vision of his daughter, shape their destiny? Is it ever possible to be out from under from such tender colonization? The younger generation of this novel comes of age as the new century is born, as new notions of freedom and responsibility take hold and new furnaces of untold destruction are quietly stoked. Whose story will drive them forward and through? Their parents'? Their own? Or something larger and more urgent?

Byatt's novel - her best yet, I think - is a meditation on the ways the seductive power to create and to be created by someone else can entrap us. "The Children's Book" lets us fully experience that lure, as beautiful sentences and elegant phrases lead us further and further in through a pleasurable series of portraits and scenes until the only way out is through. And in the end . . . there is "The Age of Lead."

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