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If it were not for the fact that The Children's Book is by A. S. Byatt, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in for something slight, swift, simple. But Byatt being Byatt - which is to say one of the cleverest writers of her generation - her latest novel is anything but childish. Stretching over 25 years and with a leading cast of at least 20, The Children's Book is one of the most grown-up you will read this year.

In Possession, her Booker-winning novel of 1990, Byatt took on a wide slice of High Victorian culture, moving easily between its people, art and literature. Here she does something similar with the fin de siècle. Stretching from 1895 to 1920, her subject is nothing less than the condition of England as it moves from the fag end of the old queen's reign, through the rackety rule of her elderly son and into bleak modernity under George V. The book ends, as the attentive reader knows it surely must, in the liquid mud of Ypres and Passchendaele.

If the book has a physical centre, it is Todefright, a comfortable manor house in the Kentish Weald, home to the Wellwood family (names are always crucial to Byatt). Olive Wellwood is a successful children's author of what would now be called "fantasy fiction". Her husband Humphry is a banker who gives up his post in order to become a radical journalist. Their friends and family comprise a large loose clan of progressive elements - writers, Fabians and feminists. There are potters and puppeteers, revolutionaries and the occasional cad, all gambolling promiscuously in this prelapsarian Garden of England. Byatt is at her brilliant best marshalling her large cast into a series of set pieces - a mid-summer party at which a tableaux from A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed, a debutante dance where no one is actually a debutante (these people are socialists, after all).

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