One does not usually associate Byatt, who has often worked on a small-even miniature-scale, with the notion of an epic novel; but that, in terms of scope and ambition, is just what she has created here. It is an invigorating spectacle, as well as a welcome reminder of how a fine novelist can illuminate a whole era in ways not even the most skilled social historian can. Set in England in the mid-1960s, the novel focuses on Frederica, an attractive, highly intelligent and bookish young woman who cut a swath at Cambridge University, then married Nigel Reiver, a well-to-do member of the landed gentry with a country house, two doting sisters and a way of life that soon seems utterly stifling to Frederica. Her small son, Leo, passionately loved by both parents, is soon the only vital element in her existence; and when friends from her former life come calling, and are rudely rebuffed by Nigel, Frederica rebels. When Nigel, ever apologetic, but convinced it is for her own good, starts knocking her about, Frederica flees to London, with Leo clinging to her in desperation. Thereafter, the book is an account of the drawn-out custody battle over Leo, climaxing in a divorce hearing that exquisitely renders the issues of a woman's independence. More impressively, it is a riveting account of changing mores, as England begins to emerge from its ancient certainties into the shifting priorities, freedoms and follies of the ""Swinging Sixties."" Among the manifestations of such changes is a book written by an eccentric, Nietzschean acquaintance of Frederica's-a fantasy, with sado-erotic overtones, about the pleasures and limits of freedom. This book (a reprise of the book-within-a-book device Byatt employed in Possession) becomes the focus of another court case when its author is prosecuted for obscenity. Through the two cases (which leap from the page much more enthrallingly, convincingly and thought-provokingly than most legal thrillers) Byatt represents a whole society trying to come to terms with new values. The narrative is mesmerisingly readable, except for long excerpts from Babbletower, the prosecuted novel, and Frederica's own rather hermetic attempts at self-expression-though even these are perfectly believable in their own right. In many ways, this is a book about language, and how it is used to conceal and reveal (there is a wonderfuly satirical subplot about a commission examining English educational methods). But it also employs language, brilliantly, to create a large cast of characters whose struggles, anxieties and small triumphs are at once specific to a time and place, and universal. Simultaneous Random AudioBook; author tour. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/01/1996 Release date: 04/01/1996 Genre: Fiction
Hardcover - 625 pages - 978-0-679-40513-9
Analog Audio Cassette - 4 pages - 978-0-679-45167-9
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