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9780307272096

The Children's Book

Byatt, A.S. Author

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Shortlisted



for the Man Booker Prize


A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.

When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends.

But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end.

Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.

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About the Author:

A. S. Byatt is the author of numerous novels, including the quartet The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman; The Biographer’s Tale; and Possession, which was awarded the Booker Prize. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels & Insects; five collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and Little Black Book of Stories; and several works of nonfiction. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third. It was June 19th, 1895. The Prince had died in 1861, and had seen only the beginnings of his ambitious project for a gathering of museums in which the British craftsmen could study the best examples of design. His portrait, modest and medalled,was done inmosaic in the tympanum of a decorative arch at one end of the narrowgallery which ran above the space of the South Court. The South Court was decorated with further mosaics, portraits of painters, sculptors, potters, the "Kensington Valhalla." The third boy was squatting beside one of a series of imposing glass cases displaying gold and silver treasures. Tom, the younger of the two looking down, thought of Snow White in her glass coffin. He thought also, looking up at Albert, that the vessels and spoons and caskets, gleaming in the liquid light under the glass, were like a resurrected kingly burial hoard. (Which, indeed, some of them were.) They could not see the other boy clearly, because he was on the far side of a case. He appeared to be sketching its contents.

Julian Cain was at home in the South Kensington Museum. His father, Major Prosper Cain, was Special Keeper of Precious Metals.
Julian was just fifteen, and a boarder at Marlowe School, but was home recovering from a nasty bout of jaundice. He was neither tall nor short, slightly built, with a sharp face and a sallow complexion, even without the jaundice. He wore his straight black hair parted in the centre, and was dressed in a school suit. Tom Wellwood, boyish in Norfolk jacket and breeches, was about two years younger, and looked younger than he was, with large dark eyes, a soft mouth and a smooth head of dark gold hair. The two had not met before. Tom's mother was visiting Julian's father, to ask for help with her research. She was a successful authoress of magical tales. Julian had been deputed to show Tom the treasures. He appeared to be more interested in showing him the squatting boy.

"I said I'd show you a mystery."

"I thought you meant one of the treasures."

"No, I meant him. There's something shifty about him. I've been keeping an eye on him. He's up to something."

Tom was not sure whether this was the sort of make-believe his own family practised, tracking complete strangers and inventing stories about them. He wasn't sure if Julian was, so to speak, playing at being responsible.

"What does he do?"

"He does the Indian rope trick. He disappears. Now you see him, now you don't. He's here every day. All by himself. But you can't see where or when he goes."

They sidled along the wrought-iron gallery, which was hung with thick red velvet curtains. The third boy stayed where he was, drawing intently. Then he moved his position, to see from another angle. He was hay-haired, shaggy and filthy. He had cut-down workmen's trousers, with braces, over a flannel shirt the colour of smoke, stained with soot. Julian said

"We could go down and stalk him. There are all sorts of odd things about him. He looks very rough. He never seems to go anywhere but here. I've waited at the exit to see him leave, and follow him, and he doesn't seem to leave. He seems to be a permanent fixture."

The boy looked up, briefly, his grimy face creased in a frown. Tom said

"He concentrates."

"He never talks to anyone that I can see. Now and then the art students look at his drawings. But he doesn't chat to them. He just creeps about the place. It's sinister."

"Do you get many robberies?"

"My father always says the keepers are criminally casual with the keys to the cases. And there are heaps and heaps of stuff lying around waiting to be catalogued, or sent to Bethnal Green. It would be terribly easy to sneak off with things. I don't even know if anyone would notice if you did, not with some of the things, though they'd notice quickly enough if anyone made an attempt on the Candlestick."

"Candlestick?"

"The Gloucester Candlestick. What he seems to be drawing, a lot of the time. The lump of gold, in the centre of that case. It's ancient and unique. I'll show it to you. We could go down, and go up to it, and disturb him." Tom was dubious about this. There was something tense about the third boy, a tough prepared energy he didn't even realise he'd noticed.

However, he agreed. He usually agreed to things. They moved, sleuthlike, from ambush to ambush behind the swags of velvet. They went under Prince Albert, out onto the turning stone stairs, down to the South Court. When they reached the Candlestick, the dirty boy was not there.

"He wasn't on the stairs," said Julian, obsessed.

Tom stopped to stare at the Candlestick. It was dully gold. It seemed heavy. It stood on three feet, each of which was a long-eared dragon, grasping a bone with grim claws, gnawing with sharp teeth. The rim of the spiked cup that held the candle was also supported by open-jawed dragons with wings and snaking tails. The whole of its thick stem was wrought of fantastic foliage, amongst which men and monsters, centaurs and monkeys, writhed, grinned, grimaced, grasped and stabbed at each other. A helmeted, gnomelike being, with huge eyes, grappled the sinuous tail of a reptile. There were other human or kobold figures, one
in particular with long draggling hair and a mournful gaze. Tom thought immediately that hismotherwould need to see it. He tried, and failed, to memorise the shapes. Julian explained. It had an interesting history, he said. No one knew exactly what it was made of. It was some kind of gilt alloy. Itwas probable that it had been made in Canterbury—modelled in wax and cast—but apart from the symbols of the evangelists on the knop, it appeared not to be made for a religious use. It had turned up in the cathedral in Le Mans, from where it had disappeared during the French Revolution. A French antiquary had sold it to the Russian Prince Soltikoff. The South KensingtonMuseum had acquired it from his collection in 1861. There was nothing, anywhere, like it.

Tom did not know what a knop was, and did not know what the symbols of the evangelists were. But he saw that the thing was a whole world of secret stories. He said his mother would like to see it. It might be just what she was looking for. He would have liked to touch the heads of the dragons.

Julian was looking restlessly around him. There was a concealed door, behind a plaster cast of a guarding knight, on a marble plinth. It was slightly ajar, which he had never seen before. He had tried its handle, and it was always, as it should be, since it led down to the basement storerooms and workrooms, locked.

"I bet he went down there."

"What's down there?"

"Miles and miles of passages and cupboards and cellars, and things being moulded, or cleaned, or just kept. Let's stalk him."

There was no light, beyond what was cast on the upper steps from the door they had opened. Tom did not like the dark. He did not like transgression. He said "We can't see where we're going."

"We'll leave the door open a crack."

"Someone may come and lock it. We may get into trouble."

"We won't. I live here."

They crept down the uneven stone steps, holding a thin iron rail. At the foot of the staircase they found themselves cut off by a metal grille, beyond which stretched a long corridor, now vaguely visible as though there was a light-source at the other end. The passage was roofed with Gothic vaulting, like a church crypt, but finished in white glazed industrial bricks. Julian gave the grille an irritated shake and it swung open. He observed that this, too, should have been locked. Someone was in for trouble.

The passage opened into a dusty vault, crammed with a crowd of white effigies, men, women and children, staring out with sightless eyes. Tom thought they might be prisoners in the underworld, or even the damned. They were closely packed; the boys had to worm their way between them. Beyond this funereal chamber, two corridors branched. There was more light to the left, so they went that way, negotiated another unlocked grille, and found themselves in a treasure-house of vast gold and silver vessels, croziers, eagle-winged lecterns, fountains, soaring angels and grinning cherubs. "Electrotypes," whispered the knowledgeable Julian. A faint but steady light rippled over the metal, through little glass roundels let into the brickwork. Julian put his finger
to his lips and hissed to Tom to keep still. Tom steadied himself against a silver galleon, which clanged. He sneezed.

"Don't do that."

"I can't help it. It's the dust."

They crept on, took a left, took a right, had to force their way between thickets of what Tom thought were tomb railings, surmounted by jaunty female angel-busts,with wings and pointed breasts. Julian said they were cast-iron radiator covers, commissioned from an ironmaster in Sheffield. "Cost a packet, down here because someone thought they were obtrusive," he whispered. "Which way now?"

Tom said he had no idea. Julian said they were lost, no one would find them, rats would pick their bones. Someone sneezed. Julian said

"I told you, don't do that."

"I didn't. It must have been him."

Tom was worried about hunting down a probably harmless and innocent boy. He was also worried about encountering a savage and
dangerous boy.

Julian cried "We knowyou're there. Come out and give yourself up!"

He was alert and smiling, Tom saw, the successful seeker or catcher in games of pursuit.

There was a silence. Another sneeze. A slight scuffling. Julian and

Tom turned to look down the other fork of the corridor, which was obstructed by a forest of imitation marble pillars, made to support busts or vases. A wild face, under a mat of hair, appeared at knee height, framed between fake basalt and fake obsidian.

"You'd better come out and explain yourself," said Julian, with complete certainty. "You're trespassing. I should get t...

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