A Whistling Woman, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


This intoxicating novel stands on its own, while forming a triumphant conclusion to A.

S. Byatt's great quartet depicting the clashing forces in English life from the early 1950s to 1970.

While Frederica falls almost by accident into a career in television in London, tumultuous events in her home county of Yorkshire threaten to change her life, and those of the people she loves.

A Whistling Woman is the ultimate novel of ideas made flesh - gloriously sensual, sexy and scary, bursting with ideas, and wonderful humanity.




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In this, the final book in the 'Frederica Potter' quartet of novels, Frederica is almost a peripheral character. The core character around whom the novel revolves, one way or another, is the charismatic Josh Lamb, whose transition from mental hospital patient to leader of a Manichean religious cult is seamless and credible. The action of the novel takes place between 1968 and 1970, a time of turmoil as young people (particularly students) begin to question authority, and everything from scentific breakthroughs to the possibilities provided by television seem both exciting and frightening.The book begins with a fairy story about 'the Whistlers', who were women who wanted a greater degree of physical freedom than they were permitted. Secretly, they fly, but they are seen and betrayed, and kicked out of their valley. Birds - literally and metaphorically - fly and flap throughout the novel. They are present even in the names of some of the characters - Elvet Gander, Luk Lysgaard-Peacock. I must admit to finding the weighted names of Byatt's characters annoying.Although there are many characters and sub-plots in this novel (Frederica and her love-life and telly career, Luk and Jacqueline the snail-hunters, Lucy and her husband Gunner, Gerald Wijnnobel's 'body and mind' conference, the anti-university), all of which are to some extent related, it is the religious community that is perhaps the most interesting feature of the novel. Josh Lamb is the quintessential charismatic leader. Although we learn something of his history, he remains an enigmatic figure. Is he fundamentally a force for good, or for evil? Strict Manichaeism, as presented in this novel, is life-negating - fasting is encouraged, sex and procreation are frowned upon.Much of the science in this novel went right over my head, and I did find myself skipping sections - there aren't that many - dealing with Jacqueline's work on snail brains. While every part of this novel is ultimately relevant, it's sometimes hard to see why certain bits are relevant. It's not a tidy novel - not everything quite adds up - but for me it's probably the most rewarding book in the quartet. Byatt seems to be interested in absolutely everything, and expects her readers to keep up with her. [April 2006]

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