Details: (c) 2002 AS Byatt; Pub Vintage International 2004; ISBN 0-679-77690-7
Verdict: A whistling woman is terrifying and compelling.
Reasons for reading it: Babel Tower is one of my favourite books ever. For ages, I'd been somewhere in between mad keen to read this to find out what happens to Frederica, and apprehensive because I don't like the first two books in the trilogy and it could so easily be a heartbreaking disappointment.
How it came into my hands: Amazon book spree.
A whistling woman neither disappointed me nor delighted me. It does develop Frederica's story, and some of the other ideas from the earlier books, which is all you can ask from a sequel. But it doesn't really leave anything much more resolved than it was at the end of Babel Tower. I'm not aware that Byatt is planning any more in the series, especially as we've reached the end of the 60s and I'm fairly certain it was written as a quartet, but in spite of a bit of gratuitous pairing up, ending a couple of thousand pages of novel with
We haven't the slightest idea what to dois not exactly satisfying. That said, there are a couple of really blatant references within the book to stories with unsatisfying endings, so this may be intentional in some way I'm not literary enough to get.
aWW is certainly technically polished, I can't think of single serious criticism. And it's readable and emotive and thought-provoking. But it seems a much less ambitious book than most of Byatt's other novels. It is well crafted, but doesn't really push the boat out. There are only a few paragraphs of book-within-book, nothing like the intricate imagined great literature of Babel Tower or Possession. In some ways Frederica's Through the looking glass TV show may be subsituting for the inner story, but a novel containing the description of an imaginary TV programme seems a lot less cute than a novel containing glimpses of an imaginary novel. The story focuses on a few central characters, and the rest of the cast are either sketched, or relying on history from the earlier books to round them out. There are a few storylines, but they all fit together in a fairly predictable way, nothing like the complex and delicate weaving of the earlier books.
There are plenty of enjoyable AS Byatt features: plausibly intelligent and complex characters, a strong sense of period, beautiful prose and some really lovely visual imagery. And her passion for academia absolutely shines through every sentence. I can't help feeling a fondness for a book which is so much in love with molecular biology, and which is creating a kind of mythology for the post-DNA age in a very literary way. But it doesn't feel like it's going anywhere, somehow, there is very little sense of story as a driving force.
In spite of its rather cosy setting, all terribly middle class and middle England, showcasing the 60s as a phase in intellectual history while barely mentioning global politics, the Cold War, Vietnam or anything of that sort, aWW is in some ways absolutely terrifying. As well as being about counterculture, and TV, and academia, and literature, and biology, and language, it's about religion, madness, evil, and violence. To me, though, the scariest thing was not the religious cult, the insights into the minds of various mentally unbalanced characters, or even the paired brutal spouse murders, but the utterly ruthless examination of the threats that face women even in a theoretically egalitarian society. It's scary in the way that a lot of people find The handmaid's tale scary, but unlike Atwood's not-SF-honest, it's totally realistic. A lot of it is about the obstacles in the way of a woman making her way in academia, the poisoned combination of sexism and biology. And it explores my deepest fears right there on the page: how hard it is for a woman to balance on that knife-edge between making meaningful connections and relationships, and losing her sense of self and independence. Then there are several parallel storylines where it seems as if the balance is there, the heroines find men who respect them as people rather than appendages, and get to a point where:
She had space to breathe, and be — and so had he — and they met eagerly and happily... and then they end up pregnant and everything comes crashing down. So I found aWW disturbing and upsetting in much the same way as the French feminist classics I read too many of in secondary school, Madame Bovary and Les belles images and especially Annie Ernaux' La femme gêlée. It's really not a good book to read when I'm in the process of getting into a relationship; I'm trying not to let the terror it invokes spook me out of appreciating a good situation.
A couple of trivial things: I'm finding Byatt's habit of including real people with thinly disguised names (and messing around with Significant Names generally) as characters in the stories increasingly annoying. Turning a minor character from Babel Tower into JK Rowling (whom Byatt notoriously despises) is a particularly egregious example. And it's rather amusing how coy she is about the homosexual relationship she scrupulously includes; the closing of the bedroom door in that instance is almost comic in contrast to the heterosexual relationships where physical detail is obligatory in any contemporary novel that expects to be taken seriously.
So aWW is rather an odd mix of being extremely emotionally powerful and containing lots of good writing, with a rather irritating absence of structure and good old-fashioned storyline. I'm not saying it's one of those impossibly clever post-novel aberrations that people who want to look intellectual get excited about. It just feels as if Byatt has lost interest in the quartet by this point, and used the final novel as a vehicle for lots of cool ideas that really would have been better explored in a completely separate book. Actually what it most reminds me of is On beauty, though with a cast of strictly white people.