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BIRDS, TWINS, SNAILS AND IDEAS

The Whistling Woman By A.S. Byatt, Chatto & Windus, £6.60

But where is Frederica Potter' After all, this is the last instalment of the tetralogy about her life and times. Antonia Byatt’s The Whistling Woman follows The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life and Babel Tower, to complete the enormous canvas that attempts to capture the turbulent cultural life of Britain in the Fifties and Sixties. At the level of pure story, Frederica, with a background somewhat like Byatt’s, is the centre which keeps moving, the indomitable questing figure. Her quest culminates here with her turning into a hugely successful television presenter of a high-brow cultural talk-show, almost without her volition. But it dwindles to insignificance among the conflicting quests of numerous other characters. Somewhere, Frederica, and perhaps Byatt, have lost the way.

There is no major “issue” of the late Sixties that Byatt has left unmentioned in this novel of ideas: science, philosophy, sociology, religion, education, politics, sex, freedom, all find place. The enormous cast of characters, locally brilliant depictions, uncertainly related to everyday life and to one another, many afflicted with strange names and an uncontrollable epistolary urge, act out their ideas to their bitter ends — two sequences end in devastating fires. For there are three main plots, none of which can be called a sub-plot. In one, Frederica fumbles her way into a career through the confusions of single motherhood and a waning love affair. In another, a North Yorkshire university works itself up to a leviathan of a Body-Mind seminar. This is disrupted by members of an Anti-University camping on its grounds, whose activities, beliefs and lessons are religiously described. The third, equally detailed sequence, follows the workings of a closed cult focussed on “purity”, led by a Manichean with a bloodstained history and mental demons. A mental home and pathological domestic violence colour the general background.

Perhaps it is Frederica that is the connecting thread, perhaps it is just snails. The “north” where the two other plots are located, is Frederica’s home country, although most of her activities take place in London. Two scientists in the university, both to be related to Frederica and to the cult in different ways, study snails in a field close by. This field belongs to a woman whose house is first blood-spattered by violence, then is shelter to the cult and is finally burnt down. The scientists, philosophers, critics and psychiatrists, who are invited to the seminar and most of whose papers are paid detailed attention, appear sometime or other on Frederica’s show. The TV discussions are reproduced too. Byatt simply cannot give up on ideas.

Yet the Byatt magic surfaces in moments of pure description. The snails in the grass, the prism of colours, the hideousness of a scene doused in blood, the absorption of a scientist struggling to dissect a tiny creature’s brain, the electric attraction between twins, the unexpressed concern of an intellectual for his rebellious, irrational, dangerous wife, sporadically endow passages with that gripping quality that is lacking in the whole of the book. But her love of allegory and metaphor, the overabundance of fires, mirrors, twins, doubles, helixes and the superabundance of birds, become distracting here. They confuse as much as the teeming ideas do.

A novel of ideas desires the intellectual engagement of the reader. But a fundamentally realist technique inherited from the 19th century, coupled with a modernist imagination, does not go well with an apparently post-modernist design. There is so much in the novel, yet there is nothing for the intellect to take hold of, in order to find its way through the culture and counter-culture of the Britain of thirty-five years ago.

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