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by A.S. Byatt

Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-40513-5
Publisher: Random House

 An ambitious, intelligent work that, while aiming to get Britain's swinging '60s down pat, unfortunately scants the usual fictional elements, putting in their place a mordant and always perceptive historical critique. This third installment in Byatt's planned quartet (after The Virgin in the Garden, 1979; Still Life, 1985) is set in that small, cozy Brit world where everyone knows everyone else because they've all been to prep school or Oxbridge together. They're insular people, smug about their politics, their unbelief, and their intellectual acumen, which, paradoxically perhaps, makes them particularly vulnerable to change. In 1964, as the story begins, Frederica, married to Nigel and the mother of four-year-old Leo, wants to put her Cambridge English degree to use. But Nigel, a quick-tempered male chauvinist, won't hear of it, of course, so after he's roughed her up a couple of times, Frederica flees with Leo to London. There, old Cambridge pals find work for her, and she begins to make a life. Revolution, however, is in the air: Students test the limits, drugs are omnipresent, grammar is under assault, the environment is polluted, nuclear war threatens, and sexual freedom is a given--all of which is crystallized in a work of fiction, Babbletower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time, that Frederica reads for a publisher and recommends. Written by Jude, a homeless vagrant with a pedigree, the novel--chapters of which are excerpted here--graphically describes a dystopia where freedom has reached its ultimate and nihilistic limits. Babbletower, and Frederica's desire to work and raise her child as a divorced woman, define the times, and the lengthy court cases in which the book is banned and Frederica granted her divorce are both fully covered. Nothing is really resolved, though the publisher of Babbletower eventually wins on appeal and Frederica gets her freedom, since what matters is the Zeitgeist, not the characters. Clever, with moments of wit and insight, but a somewhat lumbering dance to the music of time. Not Byatt's best.