This electrifying new novel forms the triumphant conclusion to the great “Frederica quartet” depicting the forces in English life from the early 50s to 1970.
While Frederica -- the spirited heroine of Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower -- falls almost by accident into a career in television in London, tumultuous events in her home county of Yorkshire threaten to change her life and those of the people she loves. In the late 1960s the world begins to split. Near the university, where the scientists Luk and Jacqueline are studying snails and neurons and the working of the brain, an “anti-university” springs up. On the high moors nearby, a gentle therapeutic community is taken over by a turbulent, charismatic leader. Visions of blood and flames, of mirrors and doubles, share the refracting energy of Frederica’s mosaic-like television shows. The languages of religion, myth and fairy-tale overlap with the terms of science and the new computer age. Darkness and light are in perpetual tension and the meaning of love itself seems to vanish; people flounder, often comically, to find their true sexual, intellectual and emotional identity.
The focus of these novels first widened from the old nuclear family to the experimental group and now narrows again to reveal the different, modern patterns of intimacy which emerged in these years. Through her wayward, lovingly drawn characters and breath-taking twists of plot, Byatt illuminates the effervescence of the 1960s -- both its excitements and its dangers -- as no one has done before. A Whistling Woman is the ultimate novel of ideas made flesh -- gloriously sensual, sexy and scary, bursting with ideas, contradictions, scientific discoveries, ethical conflicts, sly humour and wonderful humanity.
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Anyone who has followed the adventures of Frederica and her friends from The Virgin in the Garden through Still Life and Babel Tower will find it impossible to resist A Whistling Woman, the conclusion of A.S. Byatt's masterful quartet on postwar English life and manners. The first book in the series was set in the early 1950s, and A Whistling Woman carries the story through the end of the 1960s. While it lives up to the sweep and gravitas of the earlier volumes, it is slow going at the start, crowded with characters and ideas, not all of which are equally compelling. University politics, feminism, television, psychology, the advent of mass culture, and the emerging science of neurobiology each figure large, although Byatt's emphasis is on the old trio of love, madness, and religion. These novels cover much of the same ground as her sister Margaret Drabble did in The Radiant Way and elsewhere, but have more in common with the work of Iris Murdoch, whose novels showed a similar sympathy for--and fascination with--unreasoned acts of passion. A Whistling Woman is a brilliant evocation of the intellectual and social life of 1960s Britain, with allowance for the occasional grisly murder. --Regina MarlerFrom the Back Cover:
“A. S. Byatt is one of the few contemporary fiction writers–Don DeLillo is another–for whom the conceptual world is almost as important as the characters they invent and the passions they explore...There is no other writer alive who is as interested as Byatt in creating characters who are thinking women and men while at the same time recognizing the limits of cognition in the face of unreason, or love...Her canvas is stretched to bursting, as though she wanted to get in everything she had ever been curious about and hadn’t apprised us of...whether it’s Wittgenstein’s taste in interior décor or the physiology of memory....Mesmerizing.” –Daphne Merkin, New York Time Book Review
“A Whistling Woman is the fourth in a quartet of novels...Each volume can be read independently, but they are addictive...Byatt illuminates and challenges many of our prejudices and assumptions...brought to life by a vivid panoply of characters...As in all of her best books, Byatt’s spine-chilling narrative and complex characters render its daunting intellectual heft almost weightless.” –Tess Lewis, The Sun
“Full of new energy and a sense of new directions...It is always tempting, with this novelist, to talk about the ideas or the observations, unfailingly rich and tantalizing. The superb mastery of it, however, is in what Arnold Bennett would have admired: the skill of the novelist with character, story, world. The plot has a driving ferocity, the huge and extraordinary cast marshaled with exceptional dexterity. The physical details are effortlessly redolent of the period, and exactly evocative of the individual psychology...This is a novel with grand, general interests, but the mastery over the particular never flags...This is a novel, a cycle of novels, a body of work for the rest of your life.” –Philip Hensher, The Spectator
“A. S. Byatt has often been accused of intellectual over-egging, of a clever cleverness that overshadows plot and character. It’s a question of balance which every serious novelist attempting to write, in Byatt’s words, ‘about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people’ must resolve. Possession achieved this brilliantly. Her new novel, A Whistling Woman, comes close too. In this concluding installment [of her quartet of novels], Byatt blends her own excitement at ‘intellectual curiosity of any kind’ with a lucid narrative and gripping plot...I suspect her fans will be hoping for a fifth.” –Kate Bingham, Independent
“Byatt’s intellectual adventure is full of energy and vitality...[with] solid delights, keen and demanding pleasure.” –Allan Massie, The Scotsman
“The comparison between George Eliot’s writing and that of Byatt has been frequently and justly made. Byatt’s four novels are complex, lively, muscular, moral and rather masculine books whose celebration of cleverness and strong feeling is intensely invigorating. I hope this isn’t really the last of them.” –Jane Shilling, Evening Standard
“Byatt is unusual not in combining the roles of scholar and writer, but in insisting on their duality loudly, publicly and in the fabric of her fiction...At her best–and this latest is among her best–she is someone intimately acquainted with grief. She knows its violence and its faltering retreat. This, ultimately, is the grandeur of her novels.” –Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement
“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...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...Byatt’s quartet is well worth the time and attention it demands.” –Kirkus (starred review)
“The last in Byatt’s magnificent quartet of novels on intellectual life and thought in the 1950s and 1960s, A Whistling Woman can be read on its own. Rich in metaphor and glancing allusion, it is a tale of learning and anti-learning, sects and cults, the complex sexual relationships of humans and snails. [It is] predominantly a novel of ideas. Not about politics, foreign or domestic, but about philosophy, psychology and literature; the excitement of genetics and computer science edging towards their breakthroughs...pulling you along. It makes a fine conclusion to the quartet.” –The Economist
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