The life of the mind and the confusions of the spirit confront one another to often telling effect in Byatt’s lavishly orchestrated eighth novel.
This big, somewhat unruly book concludes the quartet Byatt began 25 years ago with The Virgin in the Garden (1978), which, along with its hefty successors, Still Life (1985) and Babel Tower (1996), focused with mandarin precision on the moral and intellectual growth of ever-optimistic Frederica Potter. As this story begins, Frederica, still hoping to become a writer, is employed as a television hostess and interviewer—a position that “educates” her through introductions to a society full of eccentrics, cranks, and obsessives. There’s a hint of C.P. Snow’s vast Strangers and Brothers series in the broad sociopolitical range, which extends to the minutiae of genetic research and computer science, the politics of higher education (including the establishment of a combative “anti-university,” on the outskirts of an actual college), and a seeming epidemic of pathological violence, one instance of which produces a radical religious group that calls itself “Spirit’s Tigers.” A great deal of specific information is thus crammed into this formidably complex story, but the sometimes oppressively learned Byatt has a compensatory gift for locating what she has elsewhere called “passions of the mind” in vivid and interesting characters—painstakingly real, searching ones like the well-meaning (and genuinely intelligent) Frederica and her brother Marcus, a compassionate, thoughtful scientist—and flamboyant Dickensian grotesques, including New Age psychoanalyst Elvet Gander, pop poet of the moment Mickey Impey, and fundamentalist charismatic “Josh Lamb,” a muscular Christian with a murderous agenda. Images of blood and fire are worked (rather laboriously) into the narrative, yet whenever the reader’s brain isn’t simply too overburdened, A Whistling Woman excites and satisfies, because Byatt has learned from her idol Iris Murdoch the technique of creating characters whose obsessions appear to rise from deep within, and appropriate their rich, mysterious personalities.
Not a perfect work, but an unarguably major one. Byatt’s quartet is well worth the time and attention it demands.