Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review - Nemesis by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape 2010)

It is 1944. Bucky Cantor is a 23 year old Playground Director in Weequahic, the Jewish quarter of Newark, New Jersey. A polio epidemic is spreading through the city. Cantor is dedicated to his job and to his charges, who in turn idolise him. Poor eyesight has prevented him from enlisting with his friends, much to his distress, as he is brave, athletic and dutiful. When Italian roughnecks come to the Playground "spreadin' polio" Cantor faces up to them and forces them to leave.

But polio does come to Weequahic and fatally strikes some of the children of the Playground. Panic spreads around the community. Cantor dutifully visits the anguished families of the bereaved. When he is asked by the family of Alan Michaels to come to his funeral he does so, despite that not being his original intention. This impulsiveness and willingness to oblige is the fatal flaw in an otherwise exemplary young man. Later, as the epidemic strengthens, his girlfriend pressurises him to foresake his job with the Playground as she has obtained a vacancy for his at an idyllic Summer Camp in the mountains far away from the polio epidemic. Should Bucky Cantor turn his back on the children of the playground in the face of the epidemic and take an easy option to be with his girlfriend?

This is not a long book, no more than a novella, with a single theme from which it never deviates. Yet it is remorseless, challenging, terrible. Like no other book I have read for a very long time it sets out the nature of fate, of responsibility, of contingency. To what extent is Bucky Cantor's future, and the future of those around him, determined by his actions, by his understanding of the nature of duty and by his weakness. And what is the role of God smiting the good and the worthless indiscriminately with this terrible disease. Is he in actual fact an "evil genius?"

Philip Roth's prose is simple and direct, using the heatwave to develop a sense of claustrophobia in the city in which the polio can fester, and contrasting that with the freshness of the mountain camp. There is very little that is superfluous, so the few descriptive passages make a big impact. The story is so simple, so basic, that the denouement strikes you with the force of a train. Looking back, you realise that you have been manipulated by a master at the top of his game. Economy, directness, impact. This short book will stay with you for a long long time.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Review - Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury 2010)

William Boyd's books seem to follow intermittent themes. First there were the books picking out eclectic passages from Africa where he was born - A Good Man in Africa exploring colonial life and An Ice Cream War following the little-known engagements in East Africa during World War One. Brazzaville Beach demonstrated his ability to engage on deeper themes, as it explored Chaos theory and the parallels between aggressive behaviour in Chimpanzees and in humans. It was one of three ambitious middle novels - the others being The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, the life-stories of characters involved in movie-making and Art Criticism respectively - which seemed to set him out as one of our most important chroniclers.

Yet, latterly, his attention seems to have focussed on a series of less-weighty but intelligent and finely-crafted thrillers. His last book, Restless, was a page-turning tale of espionage and duplicity set during the second world war, and his latest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, has many parallels with Armadillo, his highly-successful TV adapted work of 1998, both being set in London and featuring the quirky hero being pitched into a dark and dangerous world of greed and violence.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is the story of Adam Kindred, a research climatologist who, through no fault of his own, on the run in London pursued by the Police, a multinational pharmaceutical company and a psychopathic hit-man. He joins the ranks of the homeless and has to rely on his wits and London's underclasses in order to stay alive and to clear his name.

Boyd's main interest seems to be the extent to which a man can disappear in a City like London, and then recreate an identity which allows him to recreate a new life. Kindred drops out of sight by living rough, switching off his mobile phone and not using credit cards. Vladimir obtains a dead man's passport, and through that a credit card and a job. Turpin has multiple wives and lifes. Mhouse has simply changed her name. Kindred becomes successively John1603 and Primo Belem.

Undoubtedly, this is a taut, exciting thriller which engages the reader from the start to an extent that belief in the improbabilities of the plot to be - as is traditional in the genre - suspended. The biggest improbability is in the basic premise, that an intelligent lawabiding citizen when confronted by a body in a room and a hitman in pursuit of him should decide that the best course of action is to sleep rough in Chelsea. Once one has come to terms with this, it is a small step to believe in Kindred's unlikely romances, the fortunate death of Vladimir and only a small leap to find credible the excesses that a multinational pharmaceutical company would go to to ensure a profitable drugs launch.

Boyd as ever writes with style and economy. If Ian McEwan were to introduce a research climatologist as main character, then by the end of the novel we would be fully immersed in the vocabulary of the profession. Boyd, however, limits himself to making some passing references to cloud formations and an explaination of the title of the novel. Vocabulary - apart from a passing reference to borborygi (stomach rumbles to you and me) - is generally stripped down. He can't resist his occassional authorly jokes, however. Drugs company head Ingram Fryzer shares his name with the murderer of Christopher Marlow. Zembla appears in Nabokov's Pale Fire and John 1603 is the most quoted verse in the bible.

Yet for all its pace and elegance of execution, one cannot help thinking that Boyd is writing well within himself. It is as if he has set himself a target of dashing off a genre thriller with certain stylistic parameters. It is well-written and enjoyable as all William Boyd novels are. The plot twists, whilst not always believable, are always satisfying. The picture of London's underclass is as threatening as that of the drugs companies is improbable. The denouement is neat. It would make a great film, and Boyd is an accomplished screenwriter so he might have had this in mind. But that's for the pension fund - one can't help think that William Boyd is still capable of much more significant works than this.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Art Review : Gauguin : Maker of Myth (Tate Modern 14/1/11)

"Gauguin : Maker of Myth" which recently closed at Tate Modern was apparently the Tate's most popular exhibition ever, which underlines Gauguin's resonance with the British public. The reasons for his visual appeal are immediately apparent - his exotic themes, his big bold colours and senuous lines, paintings which are mysterious yet accessible. Yet part of the appeal is also Gauguin the man : the stockbroker who took up painting, who quarrelled with Vincent van Gogh and then set sail forever to live and paint surrounded by scantily-clad Tahitian beauties in his South Sea Island paradise.

Yet the story of Gauguin the man is in part one of his most careful artistic creations, part-truth and part self-mythologising, a complement to his work on canvas. The object of this magnificently conceived and curated exhibition is to demonstrate the extent to which the paintings can only be understood in the context of Gauguin's self-projection, and that his life is an integral part of his art.

Gauguin's early works are unremarkable - a talented impressionist, closely mimicking the syle of his mentor Camille Pissarro. The stock-market crash of 1882 persuaded him to take to painting full-time, but his circumstances declined rapidly and he moved from Paris to Rouen to reduce his living expenses. Shortly after, his Danish wife Mette returned to her family in Copenhagen and he was free to follow his artistic inclinations.

Vegetation Tropicale
by Paul Gaugin (1887)
National Gallery of Scotland

Autumn in Glencairn
by James Paterson (1887)
National Gallery of Scotland
Gauguin liked to portray himself a savage, part-Inca. In actual fact he was born in Paris but brought up in Paru to where his father travelled in exile following the revolutions of 1848. In 1887 he sailed to Panama and Martinique where he had his first close experience of native life in the French overseas colonies. But his paintings at this time are unremarkable, demonstrably Impressionist in origin, they display the flat perspectives and broad patches of colour of naturalists like Bastien-Lepage and his followers, such as the Glasgow Boys.

Le Pardon de Pont-Aven
by Emile Bernard (1888)
Private Collection

Vision of the Sermon
(Jacob wrestling with the Angel)
By Paul Guguin (1888)
National Gallery of Scotland
 It is not until he returns to Brittany in 1888 that his work transforms. He starts to work with Emile Bernard, and his style transforms under his influence. Compare Gauguin's work to the left with Vegetation Tropicale above, carried out the year before, and with Emile Bernard's work opposite. Bernard had been a student of decorative art, and his theories of Cloisonnism (bold shapes divided by dark outlines) were already well develloped when he started to work with Gauguin. As Bernard also experimented with religious symbolism in his works, his influence on Gauguin's mature style seems very apparent to me, and if there is one shortcoming in this exhibition it is that this thread of influence is underrecognised (This idea is developed at length on the Emile Bernard wikipedia page .) It seems to want Gauguin's genius to come wholly from within him which is not the case.

In 1891, Gauguin set sail to Tahiti for the first time, by when he had met Stéphane Malarmé and become heavily imbued with Symbolist ideology. Where this exhibition excels is in its juxtaposition of Gauguin's writings and paintings, which clearly demonstrates the extent to which he viewed his output as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Motifs, such as Ondine the swimming nymph or Oviri the savage, are sketched, printed, sculpted and reproduced in paintings. Typically, Gauguin supplies an allusive or teasing title for his paintings, often in Tahitian, hinting at the meaning of the whole.

To take an example, his painting Te Nave Nave Fanua contains a motif of what appears to be a naked maiden plucking a flower. Closer examination shows a lizard whispering in her ear - the title means "The Delightful Land" and the painting can thus be interpreted as a representation of the Fall of Eve. The exhibition shows how is motif is repeated in prints, watercolours, always with attendant lizard, and finally in his most significant literary work, Noa Noa, his travelogue with etchings which tells of his time in Tahiti combined with folk tales and the work of the Symbolist poet Charles Morice.

Which leads me to a couple of pedantic points. In the otherwise splendid catalogue, Noa Noa is translated as "Fragrant." (Catalogue Pg 37). However, wikipedia lists Noa as meaning "free" in Hawaiian, or "free from tapu or restraint" in Maori. . The translation of Noa Noa as "fragrance" comes from Gauguin himself - but he is both unreliable narrator and translator. It would be in character if his intention was to emphasise the "free" aspect of Noa, but chose to diguise it, to place a poetic slant on it. On another pedantic point, the Norwegian tankard shown is not a "Tine" (catalogue Pg 93), which is a Norwegian carved ornamental box with a handle.

Nevermore O Tahiti
by Paul Gauguin (1897)
The Courtauld Gallery London
However, the great pleasure of this show, and a reason for its success, is that one can examine the main themes in detail, but there are sufficient great works which can be enjoyed simply for themselves. Look into the face of the girl in Nevermore O Tahiti. Is she sad, is she sulking? What are the women saying - is the girl listening? And what is that clunky badly-drawn raven doing with the ominous Poe reference in the title? Add the colours of the girl, the sumtuous curved line of the small of her back and paterns of the pareo - a complex, beguiling, beautiful masterpiece - and there are many more.

You can enjoy his exquisite late works, explore the man, his myth, his art at whatever level you want. And if you want to avoid overcrowding at Art Galleries, then curators will have to strive to ensure that shows aren't as good as this one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Theatre Review : Small Hours by Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime - Hampstead Downstairs (dir Katie Mitchell 17/1/11)

The audience is restricted to 25 for this intimate site-specific piece in the Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn space. One is asked to take off one's shoes, and sit on the furniture around the edge the living room of an undistinguished IKEA-furnished flat.

A woman stands up, sniffing. One immediately suspects that she may have an issue with 25 newly released pairs of feet, but, no, she sprays some perfume into the centre of the room. One of the benefits of the claustrophobic staging is that one can smell the cheap perfume.

Something is disturbing her. She turns on the radio - Severe weather warning in Scotland. She phones but rings off - after all, it is about 3am in the morning. Someone calls her - father? boyfriend? She says no I don't have a boyfriend. Does he want to go to see The Social Network this weekend? We're only getting half this conversation.

She rings off, disturbed. She slowly and carefully puts her make-up on (at 3am - before going to bed? - no, she's putting her coat on. So is she going for a walk? Is she on the game?) and is about to go out when a baby cries. Is it her baby? She wouldn't go out and leave the baby? Would she? She ignores its cries - but, wait, she's going to it, and returns with a nappy sack. She sniffs again and sprays her perfume - is that baby's nappy I can smell now, or is that autosuggestion?

To say much more would give the game away - suffice to say that the director is Katie Mitchell, so she is a master at using sound to create unsettling tension. Noises we cannot ignore - telephones, babies' cries, Chemical Brothers cranked up at an unfeasible hour in the morning (turn it down think of the neighbours we shout inwardly - no, don't put it on again...).

This is a portrait of isolation - the woman (played by Sandy McDade with proper restraint in her despair) is by herself in the small hours apart from her loved ones, failing to cope. What her backstory is we never know. Fill in the gaps from the hints provided. What has pushed her to the edge? - again we don't know. What is the resolution? It is left ambiguous.

Is this a worthwhile piece of experimental theatre? Undoubtedly yes. The claustrophobic staging is an integral part of the theatrical experience, immersing the audience into the sights, sounds and smells of the woman's flat. But did it work as drama? To a certain extent. For a piece that lasts only an hour it has its longueurs, and its finale is so underplayed that there is a temptation to say is that it? But it is a play that reverberates as one reflects upon it - the unanswered questions, the heightening tension, the soundscape, the ambiguous conclusion - and as I sit here writing this review I realise that Katie Mitchell has got to me once again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review : Fool's Gold : How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe by Gillian Tett (Abacus 2010) / Whoops! Why everyone owes and no one can pay by John Lanchester (Penguin 2010) / Too Big to Fail : Inside the battle to save Wall Street by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Penguin 2010)

Syndicalist philospher Georges Sorel writes about Social Myths which may or may not be true, but act on a class or a group as a spur to action. For early Christians it was the prospect of the imminent return of Christ and for Syndicalists it was the General Strike which would herald a Socialist revolution. He writes in his Letter to Halevy that "People who are living in this world of "myths," are secure from all refutation; this has led many to assert that Socialism is a kind of religion" (

To this, Sorel could have added the Capitalists have their own myth, their own irrefutable doctrine that acts as a spur to action - that of a belief in the self-regulating nature of the markets in an environment free from regulatory interference. Now this may be true in the austere pages of economic textbooks, but generally such doctrines are underpinned by assumptions such as rational individuals making decisions based on perfect knowledge in a perfect market place. However, in reality, the rational individuals are characterised by greed and stupidity, knowledge is partial and monopolostic / monopsonistic powers hold sway over the marketplaces. The result is that markets in capitalist economies boom and crash as the tides ebb and flo and the Earth circles the sun.

However, in certain quarters there is a collective denial of the need for effective regulatory control of the excesses of the market - a quasi-religious belief in the face of all rational evidence that the markets were not only efficient but self-correcting - a denial, that is, until the Credit Crunch of 2007-9.

Now that the dust is settling on the Crunch, another mini-boom is underway - benign admittedly when compared with the excesses of expansion of Credit which characterised the early years of this century. This boom is in books from economics commentators, journalists and insiders all seeking to explain where it all went so horribly wrong, and point out what must be done to avoid repetition.

John Lanchester is an author who sought to understand for himself what was happening as the background to a novel, and discovered a more interesting story than the one he was writing. He takes a broad view and explains the concepts involved from first principles with wit, clarity and anger. If you don't know your CDSs from your CDOs then this is the place to start.

Lanchester's point is that effective legislation could have prevented the catastrophe, but that this was antithetical to the idealogues in Western governments, and to the major financial institutions themselves who were raking it in. He points out that Canada never had to bail out any banks, but had the tightest regulatory framework, the highest capital requirements, an insistance that those mortgaging over 80% of the value of their homes had insurance - and growth of 11% pa since 2004 compared with 5% in the US of A.

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times has consistently been the most readable and astute of the commentators on the crisis. In Fool's Gold, she looks at the origins of the crisis from the persective of the JPMorgan Investment Bank where Credit derivitives were first devised, but which missed out on the excesses of the boom as it stuck to its principles in risk management. This in turn has enabled it to become the world's leading investment bank as it emerges from the crash much stronger than its competitors.

Tett locates a fundamental problem as being how financial companies dealt with Super-Senior risk left over from the production of synthetic CDOs. Whilst JPMorgan continued to offset the Super-Senior risk, other companies as the Credit frezy set in retained this on their books or passed it on to undercapitalised monoline insurers or AIG. As a result, bankers at JPMorgan couldn't understand how other companies continued to make such strong returns, so they restricted their CDO pipeline thus limiting their exposure to the market.

The basic sound idea behind CDOs was that they allowed the dispersion of risk throughout the banking system. However, all the financial models which measured this dispersion were predicated on limited mortgage defaults in few localities. No-one had predicted systematic mortgage default across the country. But lax regulation - despite the unhappy memories of the Savings and Loans crisis in the 1980s - had allowed greed and stupidity to predominate. Mortgages were being sold to people who hadn't the abilty to repay them, but the sellers didn't care as their risk was being immediately sold on and rebundled by the banks within their mortgage-backed CDOs. However, when default rates started to hit 15%, then the concentration ratios started to change and Super-Senior dept was no longer impregnable. Tett tells the story with verve and clarity

The fall of Lehmans and its aftermath is the subject of Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail. Ross Sorkin charts the financial world trip to the edge of the abyss with a dizzying array of insider details. It reads like a thriller as it charts minute by minute the efforts firstly of Dick Fuld in trying to shore up Lehmans, and then the Fed and the US Treasury as they try to shore up Western capitalism. It is an astonishing piece of work, setting out in detail why Lehmans was allowed to fail, but AIG had to be saved, and how close to the precipice we had really come.

But whilst starting from different positions and looking from different perspectives, all three authors are agreed on one thing - the banking system has still not taken fully on board the lessons of the crash, and regulators are lagging in ensuring that the next economic cycle does not repeat the whole sorry story over again. We can list the crashes - secondary banking, Russian defaults, Internet bubble, Credit crunch. Yet markets are climbing once again bouyed by rock-bottom interest rates, quantitative easing and a commodities boom led by China. Yet as the Chinese economy starts to overheat and the Chinese government contemplate interest rate rises, and Euro sovereign debt concerns remain, and inflation grows and government cutbacks threaten a double-dip recession, we ask the question - is the self-regulating market mechanism the most efficient way we have to manage the scarce resources at our disposal, or is it a pure leap of blind faith?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review : The Shadow of the Sun by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1991, first published Chatto & Windus 1964)

First novels seem to fall largely into two camps - those which spring fully-formed from their authors heads, usually after a prolonged gestation and which often turn out to be amongst the author's most significant work, and these tentative works of young authors which show glimpses of promise and even of genius but display a gaucheness of youth which disappears in the mature works of the writer. Northanger Abbey, for example, is not much more than a romantic gothic romp by a talented young author. The misanthropic William Crimsworth in The Professor by Charlotte Bronte has an uncertainty of characterisation which is absent from her later work.

Some authors, especially those whose work appeared in episodic form, slowly find their feet over the course of the novel. The first hundred pages of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley are virtually unreadable. Dickens' The Pickwick Papers starts uncertainly and doesn't really take off until Pickwick engages the services of Sam Weller in the third monthly serialised episode.

To various degrees, The Shadow of the Sun falls between the types described above. It had a long gestation. Its first draft had been written between 1954 and 1957 when Antonia Byatt was an undergraduate, but it wasn't published until 1964.

It has a certain gaucheness in characterisation. Henry Severall the self-absorbed author is believable, but his march for days through the wilderness, swimming through lakes and sleeping under the stars, is not - and his eventual reappearance in front of the car driven by Oliver and Anna is not in keeping with the tone of the book. The female characters, as one might expect, are perceptively drawn, even the intense and difficult Anna. Oliver, however, has walked out from that part of central-casting marked small man with massive chip about his working-class background. He is not a likable character, and never really comes to life until the second half of the novel.

To a large extent, the novel reads as if it was written in two parts. The first half is weak, full of coincidence and uncertain characterisation. By the second part, however, Byatt's acute sensibility has kicked in. The disintegration of Margaret is finely drawn, as is Lady Hughes-Winterton, the matriarch who is wise enough not quite to trust Anna for her darling son.

But the biggest gap for fans of A.S. Byatt is the lack of ideas and major themes. This is a sensitive novel of relationships, and whilst there are references to Lawrence and others the big ideas must wait for later. However it is clear that this is a young novelist of considerable power, who can write fine descriptive passages, with a keen and shrewd understanding of human nature, and the ability to unpick emotions. Whilst this is not a great novel, it demonstrates that there is much more to come from A.S. Byatt.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Art Review : Pioneering Painters - The Glasgow Boys (Royal Academy 31/12/10)

The Glasgow Boys was not a formal movement like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but a number of loose groups of artists based around Glasgow from around 1880 to 1890, and who exhibited at the Glasgow Institute Annual exhibition in 1885 and in London at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1890 rather than at the Royal Academy of Scotland in Edinburgh. This splendid exhibition, which has transferred from the Kelvingove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow to the Royal Academy in London, tracks their influences and development from 1880 through to their final absorbtion into the artistic establishment at the turn of the century.

Their style was not homogenous - however, there were certain themes which predominated. They were realists, rejecting the classical academic tradition. The earlier Boys were strongly influenced by the Barbizon School, painting poor countryfolk and rural scenes en plein air before finishing their works in the studio. Jules Bastien-Lepage was their exemplar, his naturalism having proved popular and widely exhibited in Scotland. From him, they absorbed the looser brushwork and flat tonalities that are typical of their early work. This is exemplified in James Guthrie's early work "A Funeral Service in the Highlands", where the grey funereal tones remind one of the similarly Barbizon-influenced Hague School.

To Pastures New by James Guthrie
 Aberdeen Art Gallery
 However the grey tones were not typical. Bastien-Lepage taught that one had to immerse oneself in the communities that you wished to paint, and this proved extremely influential. Guthrie, Walton and Crawhall painted together at Crowland in Lincolnshire where the attraction was the consistency of the light rather than the rapidly changing skyscapes of the West Coast. "To Pastures New" by Guthrie captures the openness of the Lincolnshire sky as the deftly drawn young gooseherd concentrates hard whilst leading her flock across the wide picture frame. But surprisingly, this scene was only sketched in Lincolnshire and worked up during the winter at Guthrie's studio in Helensburgh.

In 1883,Guthrie, Walton and Crawhall went for the summer to Cockurnspath in Berwickshire, which was to be come a regular favorite of the Boys. They would be joined over the next few years by George Henry, EA Walton, Arthur Melville and Alexander Roche amongst others. In this period, Henry and Walton's work - following Bastien-Lepage- becomes flatter, more concerned with composition and the effects of light, whilst Guthrie's "Schoolmates" reminds me of the more traditional compostions of Millet.

Whilst Barbizon was a major influence, several of the Glasgow Boys, including Melville, Roche, Lavery and Dow, spent some summers in nearby Grez-sur-Loing, which had the advantages of being cheaper and easier to get to. A large international artists community was based there, and William Stott of Oldham in particular was an influence on those who painted there. John Lavery spent the summers of 1883 and 1884 there, but when he returned to Glasgow he saw Guthrie's "To Pastures New" which influenced him to remain in Scotland, where he brought his skills increasingly to document the emerging Glaswegian middle classes and in particular the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888.

The Druids : Bringing in the Mistletoe
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Meanwhile, other influences was brought to bear. Japanese woodblock prints were in vogue, popularised by Whistler and familiar in Glasgow through the influential Art dealer Alexander Reid. George Henry and EA Hornel were most deeply influenced by Japanese art, and, from their studio in Kirkudbright in Galloway,  their openness to an eclectic range of influences resulted in the most dramatic - though least typical - work of the Glasgow Boys. "The Druids - Bringing in the Mistletoe" combines naturalism in the heads of the Galloway Cows, pictish and celtic iconography in the robes of the druids, and the symbolism of Gustaphe Moreau.

Henry and Hornel travelled to Japan in 1893. By this time the work of the Glasgow Boys had been successfully exhibited in London and then at the Munich Glaspalast. From then on, success came easily for the leading Boys. Guthrie and Lavery became established as society portraitists. Crawhall became the leading exponent of gouache on linen (to my mind "Horse and Cart with Lady" is unequalled). Arthur Melville's watercolours have a richness of colour and fluidity of technique which is breathtaking. But by this time the Boys had progressed beyond their origins. Each had their own individual style which would lead some of them to success in the 20th Century.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Book Review - The Children's Book by A.S Byatt (Chatto & Windus 2009)

In 1895, Philip Warren, a young runaway from poverty in the Potteries, is found hiding in the bowels of what would become the Victoria & Albert Museum, sketching the Gloucester Candlestick. Fortunately, when the child is brought to the Special Keeper of Precious Metals, Prosper Cain, he is meeting with esteemed author of children's books, Olive Wellwood, who offers to take the boy to find work for him.

Thus, in an introduction which could have come from any number of turn-of-the-century children's books, is Philip Warren introduced to the Wellwoods and their sprawling family, and through them to the household of the temperamental potter, Benedict Fludd, to whom he is apprenticed. The Wellwoods are Fabians, and their social set includes anarchist emigrees from Eastern Europe, bohemian puppet-makers from Munich, and advocates of women's liberation and free love.

The Children's Book follows the fortunes of the parents and children of these households through the end of the Victorian era to the end of the First World War. To Philip the lives of the Wellwood children seem idealised, part of wealthy and loving family, having freedom to play around Todefright, their large country house in Kent and the extensive woods that surround it. But, needless to say, all is not what it seems.

In such a large, sometimes unwieldy book there are several dynamic themes. Olive Wellwood appears to be the loving, caring mother, who has created a personal story for each of her children. But Olive is withdrawing into her own creative world and leaving the day-to-day caring for her household to her sister, Violet Grimwith. As Olive withdraws, she is less able to cater for her children's emotional needs, with tragic consequences. Olive's withdrawal is partly precipitated by the lack of emotional support from her husband, Humphry. He has left his post with the Bank of England to campaign for Fabian causes, but this is a book in which patriarchal characters are generally portrayed negatively. Humphry has left a string of illegitimate children behind him, and, when he makes a drunken pass at one of Olive's teenage daughters, he is forced to admit that he is not in fact her father.

At nearby Purchase House, Benedict Fludd's terrifying rages appear to have had a cowing effect on his family. There is a general acceptance that since Fludd is a creative genius his moods can be indulged, but, as Philip discovers when he find sexually explicit models of Fludd's daughters, his tyranny has gone much further.

The third serial exploiter of women is Herbert Methley, who we meet whilst sunbathing in the nude in his garden with his wife. Methley is an author who writes and speaks on women's rights, including their sexual rights. But Methley is only intent on seduction - once in bed he treats his women badly.

The book is also concerned with radical politics. Banker Basil Wellwood's son, Charles/Karl, mixes in German anarchist circles, but eventually prefers to study at the LSE to carrying out acts of violence. Ironically, since he has worked out his position on violence clearly in advance, refuses to fight, but becomes a red cross stretcher bearer in the First World War. Olive's daughter Hedda becomes a radical suffragete but, along with Doctor Dorothy and Fludd's abused daughter Pomona also finds a certain peace and self-realisation through her work with wounded soldiers.

Several characters pursue paralleled paths to self-realisation or self-destruction. Olive and her sister Violet have escaped from mining communities in the north to set up a prosperous household with Humphry where Olive can create her books. Philip and his sister Elsie have separately left their starving household in the Potteries to walk to the South, where Philip can create his pots. Dorothy becomes a doctor and Imogen Fludd becomes a craftswoman in spite of their respective parents. On the other hand, neither Tom nor Benedict Fludd can escape their demons.

Tom has parallels with the children of several writers of children's books of the period - the son of Kenneth Grahame (who himself worked for the Bank of England) and J.M Barry's adopted son are both thought to have killed themselves. Benedist Fludd is closely based on sculptor Eric Gill, and aspects of the Wellwood household is based on that of E Nesbitt.

Real characters from radical politics and the artitstic movements of the period take walk-on roles as Byatt builds her picture with excting attention to detail. Her background in the decorative arts is clear as the technicalities of ceramics, of Gien Faiencerie and the influence of Bernard Palissey is described in loving detail, as is the Art Nouveau of the Paris 1900 Exposition.

Byatt delights in instructing the reader, be it the radical beliefs of Munich Anarchists, or the politics of the Victoria and Albert museum, or the Back to Nature of Edward Carpenter. Several critics have complained that this is at the expense of the plot of this novel, but I disagree. When writing with such a cast of characters and on such a broad scale, the discussion of ideas and detailed descriptions of the various creative processes give the reader space both to contextualise and to absorb the reality of the relationships slowly unfolding before you. And they are all interlinked. The creative process builds and destroys the relationships, as do the radical ideas prevelant at the time.

But at heart this is a very conservative book. For all Charles/Karl's youthful flirtation with radical politics, in the end the family unit which retains its integrity to the greatest is the conventional family unit of the banker Basil Wellwood. All the others have been destroyed to a greater or lesser extent by the actions and beliefs of the parents. And when on the penultimate page Dorothy discovers that her father is Jewish, but that "it had not occurred to Dorothy to ask if her father was Jewish, and he had not felt a need to tell her" the scene is set for ideology to drive the next phase of Europe's 20th Century tragedy.