Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A Whistling Woman by A S Byatt

The final part of the Frederica Quartet. The title is from the old saying: A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen are neither good for God or Man. It sets the tone for much of the book as numerous characters feel unable or unwilling to fulfil their traditional roles expected by society. Frederica shuns domesticity (although she is obviously a very good mother), Daniel is an unconventional priest and Marcus continues to be something of a lost soul. Lots of the earlier characters feature and storylines are referred to and continued. There are even some new people to get to know – including the charismatic Joshua Ramsden who has a major role. Frederica has become a fairly successful (Joan Bakewell-type) television personality. Her parents are in fairly contented retirement but caring for the children of Daniel and Stephanie (Frederica’s dead sister). Daniel still works on his suicide listening service in London but spends more and more time in the north. Marcus works at the university and is a talented mathematician. But this is the late 1960s and new ideas and ideologies abound. A religious community is set up near to the family home which attracts some eccentric folk. As this cult develops it becomes darker and more sinister. (One false note here is the way in which Gideon was prepared to work alongside Joshua – I am sure that in real life someone as egotistical as Gideon would have wanted to be at the head of any community) There are nice parallels here with Babbletower in Babel Tower – both seem to be established with benign motives but disintegrate in something awful. The university is planning a conference on Body and Mind and invites many eminent scholars to give papers. But an Anti-University has been set up which decides to disrupt proceedings. As with the others in the quartet this book contains lots of science (much of it incomprehensible to me) and mythology. But the characterisations and the story both carry the reader along to a satisfying conclusion. (I felt a bit cheated that virtually no mention was made of Nigel, Frederica’s ex-husband. I would have liked something really bad to happen to him!)

So I have, at last, completed the Frederica Quartet - some 2,000 pages brimming with ideas. Do I get a medal?

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