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A S Byatt: A Whistling Woman

Every writer is entitled to write one crappy novel and this is Byatt’s. The conclusion of the Frederica Potter quartet takes us to the end of the Sixties but, frankly, if you manage to make your way through this, you would have rather she had stayed in the mid-Sixties. While Frederica sort of remains the focus of this novel, Byatt seems to be enamoured of the Sixties and all that that implies. Unfortunately, she is unsure whether she wants to celebrate the Sixties (and all its fads) or mock it. She soon falls between two stools, now paying tribute to all the novelties of the Sixties, now making fun of them. It’s all there – student protest, feminism (including mock-feminist literature), faddish psychology, incipient Blairites, alternative university, new age mumbo-jumbo, television-as-culture, fascination with Tolkien-like pseudo-mythology, dropping out, alternative communities, rock music with bands with clever names. The only things that seem to get a low priority are psychedelic drugs. Perhaps if Byatt had used some, this might have been a better novel.

One of Byatt’s many skills is to have a tight plot and hang all her ideas on that. The plot here is frankly weak. An alternative university is set up around the North Yorkshire University, linked to an alternative community. Frederica gets into television. Luk and Jacqueline study snails. And, in the alternative community with which they are associated, there is blood and fire. The novel has a suitable cataclysm and a suitable ending to tie it all together but it really doesn’t work. There is no focus. The ideas are unclear. The characters are wooden and, frankly don’t work. Yes, some of those psychedelic drugs she seems to have missed in the Sixties might well have helped.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Chatto and Windus