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Book Review

A very bad case of birds on the brain

AS Byatt brings her monumental survey of 1950s and 1960s England to a close in a blizzard of symbols with A Whistling Woman. But can the novel of ideas take this many ideas?


A Whistling Woman
by AS Byatt
Chatto and Windus £16.99, pp422

The task which AS Byatt has undertaken in her so-called Frederica Quartet, of which A Whistling Woman is the final instalment, is a formidable one: nothing less than the depiction of the social and imaginative life of England throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

A more modestly inclined writer, confronted with such a massive historical terrain, might have settled upon a technique of high-altitude mapping; noting familiar landmarks and large-scale cultural contours. Byatt, by contrast, has tried to write history as seen from ground level, by creating a central character - the sparky, spiky Frederica Potter - and pushing her forwards through two decades of English life.

More than this, by using her skills as a pasticheur and letting her prose take on the texture of whichever idea, person, or writer she is describing at a given moment, Byatt has attempted to bring her readers to feel the past, rather than simply telling them about it.

Looking back, we can see that the publication of the first novel in the quartet,The Virgin in the Garden (1978), was the beginning of a gigantic effort of historiography. Nearly a quarter of a century on, Byatt's ambition is unmistakable but the success of her project is increasingly less clear. For A Whistling Woman, which covers the period from 1968 to 1970, suffers from the same sins which beset its forerunners - the excessive use of symbols (spiders, spirals, fire, webs, mirrors), a narrative gnarliness, an overbearing sense of allegory - but it suffers from them even more acutely.

The plot is too rangy to be usefully summarised, but Frederica Potter at least makes a financial success of herself in this one: forging a career as a TV presenter on a cultural discussion programme. When not in London, the novel spends much of its time on the Yorkshire moors, where Frederica's intermittent lover, John Ottakar, has taken up a post in a 'university'.

The moors are also home to a variety of maniacs, dissenters and delusionists, many of whom harbour an animus towards the university, and who are designed to represent various aspects of the late-60s counter-culture. The hostility between these motley elements and the university leads eventually to the conflagration with which the book, and the quartet, more or less concludes.

A Whistling Woman is a novel which, as the blurb says, is 'bursting with ideas'. 'Bursting' catches it nicely, because there are simply too many ideas. Every major idea in the years Byatt is depicting needs a mention before the book can be ended.

She has never been afraid of a symbol, and the bewilderment which the book's ideas induce isn't helped by the tropes which proliferate throughout. Gnomic references abound to twins, mirrors, spirals (single), helixes (double), fires and birds. Especially birds. The novel opens with an italicised eight-page fairy tale about a talking thrush, and the birds just keep on coming after that.

Like the birds which silently mass on gables and wires in Hitchcock's film, they begin as an intellectually threatening presence. Unlike the birds in the movie, they are ultimately neither memorable nor dramatic, only obfuscating.

Other infelicities damage the novel, too, including the ludicrous names of almost all the characters (Luk-Lysgaard Peacock; Elvet Gander etc - note the avian allusions), and the not infrequent stylistic botches. At one point, for instance, two dogs come into a room 'agitating their sterns', which I presume is a ghastly attempt to say 'wagging their tails' without, for some reason, saying so.

A Whistling Woman is an over-ambitious jumble. Byatt might well respond that the years she is describing were themselves both over-ambitious and jumbled and that, as such, her novel stands in symbolic relationship to them. But that's not enough. Byatt has always been the most nineteenth-century of contemporary novelists. A Whistling Woman, however, lacks the essential clarifying power which narrative can bring to history; it fails to provide an articulate critical relationship with the years it treats. Too many symbols, ideas and names compete for attention and comprehension.

Source: The Guardian









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