It is 1895 and two young boys, Julian and Philip, are standing in the Prince Consort Gallery, an ambitious project full of decorative arches and mosaics, in which British craftsmen could study the best examples of design. AS Byatt's novel could surely be exhibited as an example of superlative novelistic design, so rich in detail that the reader pauses to admire, re-examine, and linger over the fine handiwork, from the minutely crafted to the broad sweep.
Julian's father is Special Keeper of Precious Metals, but as the characters are tragically to learn, it is far easier to watch over an object than an unruly living being; far harder to keep safe the precious humans in our lives. Philip is a young boy found in the museum in the opening scene, and through his perspective we gain insight into the life and thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the breach between fairy tale and grim reality.
This is very much a novel about the importance of paying attention – not only to the grand architecture of the buildings in which we live, but crucially to the edifices of our relationships and the construction of our own thought processes. The fictional children's author Olive explores these matters in the book-within-a-book she is writing, which is interspersed throughout.
AS Byatt is an assiduous chronicler of the history of both her characters and her country. There is at times too much to pay attention to, in the lengthy disquisitions which distract from the main narrative. But then, we too are constantly forced to consider – and reconsider – what it is that really matters; what to keep in our lives and value as precious and what to discard as worthless; what might shape us from bewildered children who betray those we love most, into responsible adults who might shape the world into a better place.
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