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Examine Children’s Books-Two recent novels by foreign writers capture the interior monologues of children and intertwine them with those of adult voices.

Date: Oct 20 2009

“The Children’s Book” by A.S. Byatt and Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” resonate with childhood questions as philosophical as any formal ontology, making us ask, do any of us really know who we are?

Byatt’s “The Children’s Book” examines the shift in Victorian thinking about children and their place in the adult world. Carefree Olive Wellwood, a successful children’s writer and mother of seven, uses her children as inspiration for her books, but cares little for their real feelings or interests. She lives an artsy, bohemian lifestyle on an estate in Kent, where the children are left to their own devices. Real-life turn-of-the-century people and events, such as the Paris Exposition of 1900, women’s suffrage, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf bring the time period to life and raise the question, “Who’s minding the adults,” in the same atmosphere as her successful novel, “Possession.”

Byatt had planned to name her latest volume “The Hedgehog, the White Goose and the Mad March Hare,” but Muriel Barbery’s meteoric rise to fame in 2008 with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” may have pre-empted that title. Enter an unlikely set of Parisian friends, a 54-year-old, self-deprecating, Marxist concierge and a 12-year-old bourgeois resident in the luxury apartment building where she works.
Renee’s story is told in first person, whereas we know the precocious Paloma’s thoughts from her diary, in which she documents her plan to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, unless she can make some sense out of the farcical movement of the universe.

Both characters sadly and needlessly hide their intellects from the world, because it is easier to navigate that way. When a philosophical treatise and some gourmet food items fall from Renee’s bag, Paloma begins to suspect there is much more to her than the simpleton door-keeper she pretends to be. Living up to other people’s expectations and breaking through stereotypes of class and age pervade this novel. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” takes us on a rollicking good romp through Marx, Tolstoy, Husserl, William of Ockham, and the meaning of life. Leave it to the French to combine love and friendship with philosophy and art.

By Melony Carey