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A Whistling Woman
by A.S. Byatt
(Knopf, 2002)

At four hundred plus pages, "A Whistling Woman" sits weightily in your lap. It's jam-packed with esoteric bits of information and scholarly, essay-like asides, about everything from Latin grammar to Kierkegaard and St. Augustine to the neurosynapses of snails. Byatt is a true academic, and perhaps a bit of a show-off too, and while you might think that intellectual high-falutinism does not make for a page-turning novel, think again.

"A Whistling Woman" is the kind of book that you don't want to end - not surprising if you've read the Booker Prize winning "Possession," one of the author's many previous works. Byatt is a master plot-builder, able to create elaborate situations and to work a reader's curiosity, making the audience eager with a childlike desire to know what happens next, whether the situation is a developing psychological case-study or a developing romance. And she keeps readers hooked until the very last pages, when the answers to even forgotten questions continue to tumble forward.

Other Book Reviews:

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

Dogwalker
- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

Palladio
- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

Atonement
- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

In previous novels, Byatt's love of academic knowledge was at times distracting from the momentum of her plots. Long-winded recounts of ancient myths sometimes came across as heavy-handed parables, pretentious and clunky. But this time around, the academics seem much more well-entwined with the "real" story, and the whole thing holds together quite well. "A Whistling Woman" is the fourth in a series of novels that center around the members of the Potter family, following "The Virgin in the Garden," "Still Life," and "Babel Tower." The Potters are only part of the sprawling, labrynthine story, for as usual Byatt has taken an ambitiously large cast under her wing.

At this stage in the game it is the late sixties, and thirty-something Frederica Potter lives in London with her son Leo, in a house she shares with another single-mother friend. Her younger brother Marcus Potter is at the University of North Yorkshire, doing graduate work in math. The three major strands of the story are as follows: 1) The development of Frederica's new job as a hostess on a new TV program. 2) Administrators at the University of North Yorkshire are planning a multi-disciplinary conference called "Body and Mind," while at the same time an Anti-University emerges. 3) Near the University, a number of people, including characters connected with various figures at the University and with various members of the Potter family, form a healing community that begins to turn into a self-destructive cult.

Each of the plots leaves plenty of room for the scholarly interests that are Byatt's trademark. Half of the characters' lines seem to be uttered with one "yes I'm clever" eyebrow raised. Frederica interviews psychoanalysts on her TV show, cult members delve into various scriptures and religious thinkers, and the University characters grapple with the subjects of conference attendees and discuss the languages of the then-new computers. One University academic, the scientist Luk, studies sexual and asexual reproduction in animals, and when he tries to woo longtime friend Jacqueline with candle lights and leg of lamb at his cottage, he cannot step out of his role as an analytic academic -- every time he takes a dish from the oven or offers a glass of wine, his head becomes filled with images of peacocks preening their feathers, snail slimes and other mating rituals.

While it is sometimes confusing to keep track of the many characters, particularly if unfamiliar with the three preceding novels, their movements as communities are absolutely fascinating studies in group behavior. Which, conveniently, several of Byatt's characters are actually studying - for example, one of the cult members is a budding ethnomethodologist, living under cover for research purposes, but finds that she must struggle not to fall prey to the persuasions of charismatic leaders.

As a group, Byatt gives the Anti-University contingent just about zero credibility. She portrays them as selfish reckless followers who unthinkingly spew anarchist rhetoric, and as they plan their protest against the University's Body and Mind conference, it's clear that they are going to do nothing but make a big mess for all the sympathetically cast University administrators. While they grow particularly enraged about a German conference guest for his supposed complacency during the war, in their pig-headed ignorance they do not see that their own unquestioning willingness to swallow the turn-on tune-in drop-out philosophy of life follows a strikingly similar pattern.

Perhaps Byatt portrays the Anti-U with such distaste because she herself is so clearly enamored with book-learning, but the group might have been even more interesting if she had allowed them a scrap of sympathy. In other scenarios Byatt is an expert at letting us see a single event from multiple and equally credible perspectives. For example, Frederica's TV discussion with women writers about the new concept of the Free Woman touches on subjects such as the pill, which Frederica considers playful, harmless and interesting. Meanwhile Jacqueline and Luk happen to view the program just as they have learned that Jacqueline is pregnant and are uncertain as to what to do, and Luk is offended by the too-casual tone of the TV chat. Such coincidences happen frequently, and while they sometimes seem overly-constructed, they are also necessary to keep all the different strands of narrative wound up together.

Byatt's style, which requires you to slow down and do a little thinking in order to enjoy it, is a nice change of pace considering there are so many authors out there who cultivate voices of calculated simplicity, and who write in catchy sound-bites. Byatt forces you to relax, sit back and be patient as she spins her tale and shares her knowledge with you.


-- Christine Leahy




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[email protected] | February 2003 | Issue 35
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