Pamela Norris

Potted Histories

The Children’s Book

By

Chatto & Windus 614pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

A S Byatt’s new novel begins in 1895 with two boys pursuing a third to his hiding place in the bowels of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria and Albert). It concludes nearly twenty-five years later with the return of a beloved son from the Great War. It traces the history of several families and their friends, a loosely connected group of writers, artists, financiers and thinkers. The action takes place partly in London, partly in Kent and the Romney Marsh area of southern England, with forays into France, Germany, Italy and, finally, the battlefields of Europe. As in Byatt’s previous fictions, the novel sets the personal history of imagined characters within a minutely researched portrait of a historical era. Also characteristically, it is a novel obsessed with visualising. With its lavish descriptions of clothes, artworks, interiors and stage sets, it combines the pictorial realism of the nineteenth-century artist William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day or The Railway Station with the fantasy and strangeness of Richard Dadd’s Contradiction: Oberon and Titania. (Indeed, the Victorian fascination with the human mishaps and magical transformations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an important theme in the book.) 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,