A WHISTLING WOMAN
Byatt, like George Eliot and Doris Lessing, aims to show in her fiction the exemplary struggle between self-consciousness and the precepts of culture. She produces "novels of ideas"—which is an all too bloodless label for this beautifully realized, smart novel, the final volume of the tetralogy she began with The Virgin in the Garden. It is 1968. To capture the millenarian atmosphere of that year, Byatt situates her action around several different centers: a fashionable TV chat show hosted by Frederica Potter (whose divorce was the center of Babel Tower); an Anti-University going up in the moor near the University of North Yorkshire; a conference on body and mind being planned by the vice-chancellor of UNY; Dun Vale Hall, also in the moors near the university, an alternative therapy site whose titular head, R.D. Laing–like psychoanalyst Elvet Gander, is increasingly under the sway of his patient, the charismatic Joshua Ramsden; and UNY's biology department, where Luk Lysgaard-Peacock and Jacqueline Winwar are working within the relatively recent neo-Darwinian synthesis. As Frederica's producer sets up a documentary around the UNY conference, all the circles begin to overlap. Against the rationality of the novel's scientists is pitted the stubborn truth of their finding: that the brain isn't made for reason, but for the body. In Frederica, Byatt has produced a model proto-feminist: literate, shrewd and knowing, a character who could only be the product of centuries of Enlightenment. The countertheme belongs to the dark, ecstatic Ramsden, whose psychotic episodes begin to bleed into his essential, charismatic goodness. "We are shimmering on the edge of transfiguration," writes Gander. The terror, as Byatt shows, is what lies over that edge. (Dec. 17)
Forecast: The scope of Byatt's quartet of novels, the first of which was published in 1979, is impressive. The release of the final installment should prompt overviews of all four and appreciations of Byatt's career to date.
Release date: 12/01/2002