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A Whistling Woman
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A- : dense, artful novel of the end of the 1960s
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, though most at least very impressed by aspects of it
From the Reviews:
- "The British publisher claims that A Whistling Woman stands on its own, but I just wished it would stand still. This peripatetic story about the late 1960s is as fascinating, eclectic, and confusing as that psychedelic era. (...) The plot is so fragile that it breaks into tangents at the slightest touch of coherence. And yet it's all strangely engaging" - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "This novel can be read as a sustained attack on the woolly liberalism, New Age spiritualism and anti-intellectualism of both the Sixties and the present day. It is also the story of a thinking woman unable to escape her roots and biological destiny. Byatt finds the world curiouser and curiouser and expects the same curiosity in us. To portray The Whistling Woman as a baffling cerebral exercise would be to ignore the characteristic wisdom, humanity and humour that gives it life." - Lisa Allardice, Daily Telegraph
- "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. (...) A Whistling Woman, like its predecessors, 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 breakthrough." - The Economist
- "Byatt's clashes between the intimate and the intellectual make for a raucous, lively work." - Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly
- "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
- "A Whistling Woman accommodates pastiche, parody and even satire in an entirely different way, but what Byatt is really attempting is to make it even more capacious. (...) There is, in short, a lot going on. But besides the narrative traffic, there is also a constant parade of dense and complex ideas." - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "But even if you are jolly clever, you won't be clever enough. And that, too, is the novel's agenda. (...) Chiefly however, the late Sixties are represented through tiresome clichés. The author cannot take the period seriously, and the brittle distance she maintains from warm emotion demonstrates not only distances but alienates." - Stevie Davies, The Independent
- "A Whistling Woman sets up more analogies and cross-references than most readers can possibly assimilate. (...) (T)o my mind the finest novel of the series." - Ruth Bernard Yeazell, London Review of Books
- "Not only does Byatt handle her many characters, themes and milieus with authority and finesse, she also weaves them into a satisfyingly coherent whole." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times
- "Byatt is a writer who struggles mightily to be the undertaker of her own silliness. (...) Byatt turns out to be precisely what she dreads most: a lady novelist writing silly novels." - Lorraine Adams, The New Republic
- "A Whistling Woman is, in the end, a novel about the limits of liberalism. Its central dilemma is this: how do you tolerate something that will, if tolerated, eventually extinguish both you and tolerance itself ? (...) Occasionally, the whole pretence that one is reading a novel disappears altogether, to be replaced by the rather less allowable spectacle of A S Byatt thinking." - D.J.Taylor, New Statesman
- "Her canvas, never modest to begin with, is here stretched to bursting., as though she wanted to get in everything she had ever been curious about and hadn't already apprised us of in earlier books (.....) A Whistling Woman is defiantly not for everyone (.....) When the novel is not being tedious, it is mesmerizing" - Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review
- "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. (...) A Whistling Woman is an over-ambitious jumble. (...) 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." - Robert MacFarlane, The Observer
- "Byatt comes closer than most novelists to getting the '60s right, the flower-power silliness as well as the serious ideas, but the price for her scholarship is a sometimes sagging narrative." - Lee Aitken, People
- "A Whistling Woman, like the three other Frederica Potter novels, never mesmerizes the way Byatt's best and most popular works, Possession and the novella Morpho Eugenia, do. She has a great gift for storytelling, but she isn't consistently interested in using it, particularly when she's feeling most ambitious." - Laura Miller, Salon
- "Woman seems less able than its predecessors to stand on its own. As the book progresses, characters from earlier books appear and vanish in brief cameos, and even the strongest figures are mired in three volumes of context. (...) Even as the plot sprawls into its own loose fishing net, she gathers up bright morsels of pleasure. Specific, precise details delineate her quirky characters; deliberate filaments weave the varied tales together." - Rachel Elson, San Francisco Chronicle
- "This is a novel quite out of the ordinary, and its atmosphere and flavour are very difficult to explain or convey. (...) (T)here is a feeling of a series of almost musically overwhelming cadences, one after another, and the grandeur of the last pages comes from the long line of people, one after the other, slipping away quietly, one story after another reaching an ending, but no conclusion or solution. (...) This is a novel, a cycle of novels, a body of work for the rest of your life." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator
- "A Whistling Woman is both magnificent and unsatisfactory. It does not exactly stand up on its own: but it is positively bursting at the seams with both ideas and characters." - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph
- "Critics must beware of believing that an author believes any of the opinions he or she puts into the mouth of their creations, but this is precisely what is wrong with A Whistling Woman. Byatt is never less than intelligent, but we do not turn to fiction for intelligence, unless it be of a more subtle kind." - Amanda Craig, The Times
- "Byatt has eidetic capacities: the tendency to think by simply visualizing. Transmuting this into prose is complicated. Colouring and patterning are both crucial and these are the motifs she uses when discussing her own (or another author's) writing. The effect, though florid and intellectually exciting, is rarely sensual." - Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
A Whistling Woman is the concluding volume of a quartet books centred vaguely around the character of Frederica Potter.
The first volume, The Virgin in the Garden, was published in 1978, and is a novel of the 1950s.
Like the third and strongest volume of the lot, Babel Tower (see our review), A Whistling Woman is a novel of the 1960s.
The focus now is on the very tail end of the decade: the novel begins in the summer of 1968 and the final chapter -- the only one with a date line ("January 1970") -- offers just a glimpse of a new decade, and of the future.
In A Whistling Woman this final post-May 1968 tailspin of the decade isn't coloured by continental concerns, or even Viet Nam: Byatt's England remains an isolated (and concentrated) isle.
There are several major storylines: Frederica become a TV personality of sorts, for one, as host of Through the Looking-Glass.
An "Anti-University" sprouts up, blossoms, and explodes beside an established one.
A number of scientists are at work on experiments, trying (very messily) to discover the workings of snail thought processes, for example.
An isolated therapy group mutates into a dangerous cult.
The book begins with a story.
Agatha has been telling a story, every Sunday, for some two years, to various listeners -- first and foremost her own daughter, Saskia, and Frederica and her son, Leo.
A Whistling Woman begins, without preamble, with the final episode, after which the story proper begins:
"And that," said Agatha to the assembled listeners, "is the end of the story."
Appalled because it doesn't seem at all a proper end: "There was no satisfaction in the end of the story. It was as though they had all been stabbed."
It is, of course, also a warning from Byatt, about this book (and, by extension, about the quartet of books) and about endings in general.
There was an appalled silence.
Agatha's story eventually is also published as a book (Flight North).
Frederica (who lives in the same house with Agatha), will also publish a book -- tellingly, one largely made up fragments (and called Laminations).
Frederica's book gets the press attention, because of its author (a recognised TV personality by then) and its literary pretensions ("Both the reviewers who liked Laminations and those who didn't referred to it as 'clever' "); in the end, however, it is the initially largely ignored fantastical Flight North that becomes the true success.
This is also a commentary on the era: the literary, fragmentary, intellectual work is much discussed but receives what ultimately turns out to be little more than superficial notice, while the dark fantasy (like Tolkien, or Rowling) is embraced.
Frederica is an odd character in A Whistling Woman.
She's not much liked, for one, and Byatt makes a point of mentioning repeatedly how others are put off (for various reasons) by her.
She's also dissatisfied.
Near the beginning of the book she gives up teaching -- "because she wanted to teach".
An academic of the old school, she recognises: "I'm at the wrong place, at the wrong time" (making Frederica a brave choice for Byatt for a (semi-)central character in a novel about the late 1960s).
Frederica and television might seem an odd fit, too, but it works.
Through the Looking-Glass is an interesting concept:
(...) the very first television about television.
And he didn't just mean a critical chat-show.
He meant a new form of thought.
It also gives Byatt a stage for her thoughts and musings, as she pairs up guests and offers up a variety of subjects, seen through the late-1960s looking glass -- clever background stuff for much of the novel.
However, Frederica is only one of the characters.
Byatt builds up A Whistling Woman with many more.
It makes for a sprawling work, with focus and attention shifting unpredictably (and not always in most welcome fashion).
Two main strands progress like scales, the weight tipping from one side to the other until everything is upset.
One is the university, first hardly threatened by the Anti-University at its gates, then ultimately (and catastrophically) overwhelmed by it.
Another is a similar group of outsiders: as one member (though more observer than participant) writes: "We call ourselves a Therapeutic Community, but there's an obvious sense (to a sociologist at least) in which we are an embryonic religious cult."
By the end: "it's a full-blooded cult", and this also leads to disaster.
(Somewhat disturbingly, Byatt allows (or forces) both these alternative escapes so typical of the time to self-destruct in violent conflagrations.
Of the things of the time that she mistrusts only television proves indestructible -- and she seems to be able to make her peace with it.)
There's philosophy all over, too: Wittgenstein, a Body-Mind Conference (that, inevitably, leads to disaster -- as the mind-body issues usually, in one form or another, do ...).
There's a good deal of science, too, and several scientists figure prominently.
Snails are closely studied -- the starkest contrast to the complexities all around.
Byatt's range (and depth) can be daunting.
Not at all atypically we find characters about whom she writes things such as:
She was trying to master the differential equations needed to map and measure the action potential of the symmetrical giant cells on the ventral surface of the snail-brain.
(One is almost relieved, a littler further on, to read: "Her work disintegrated into mess and failure" -- almost, that is, until one pictures it .....)
Very obviously, A Whistling Woman is a book of ideas.
Many, many, many ideas -- and, for the most part, there's a real thrill to these.
Byatt is thinking author, and the thoughts and ideas (and her intense engagement with them) rise impressively off the page.
But A Whistling Woman is also more.
It's a book of many relationships (few, interestingly, anywhere near successful), and of complex and ultimately often sad attempts to live not only for oneself but also together.
It is, in several senses, a social novel.
A Whistling Woman strays a bit too far, and is a bit too full.
It's real, in how densely populated it is, but it is occasionally overwhelming to track the various characters.
(Things aren't helped by some of the names: Avram Snitkin, Elvet Gander, and Luk Lysgaard-Peacock, for example.)
Byatt's command of her material occasionally falters, but there is also a great deal here that is remarkable.
By and large she writes very well -- the pacing of the novel and especially the switching between scenes doesn't always work well, but the bits themselves are almost invariably very, very good.
Many stand out.
Babel Tower works more convincingly as a cohesive novel, but A Whistling Woman is an impressive closing chapter -- if not to Frederica's saga (one remains curious what becomes of her), at least to the 1960s.
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A Whistling Woman:
Other books by A.S.Byatt under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Antonia Susan Byatt was born in 1936.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she is the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction.
She is the sister of author Margaret Drabble.
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© 2003-2012 the complete review
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