A Whistling Woman, by A. S. Byatt. Knopf. 448 pages. $26.
As Frederica Potter, a 33-year-old single mother, lies awake at night waiting for her lover, she reflects that "There was always only an unreal moment's grace between the beginning of a love affair ... and this steady self-questioning about how and why and when it would end." The affair, of course, is doomed, its end mostly due to her unwillingness to sacrifice even the smallest part of her hard-won independence. No matter how ardently they are desired, such moments of grace, of love, belief and order amid the chaos of modern life, are rarely sustained, and even then at great cost.
In A. S. Byatt's latest novel, A Whistling Woman, these fragile, intimate moments as well as their grander philosophical counterparts are brought to life by a vivid panoply of characters. Interweaving several intricate plot lines around the central figure of Frederica, Byatt strains the vast array of her characters' beliefs and illusions to the breaking point.
A Whistling Woman is the fourth in a quartet of novels, begun 25 years ago with The Virgin in the Garden, in which Byatt has tried to capture the intellectual life and social ferment of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Each volume can be read independently, but they are addictive, and reading the complete cycle brings even more enjoyment than the sum of its parts.
This final installment begins in 1968, as the University of North Yorkshire is planning a prestigious interdisciplinary conference on body and mind. At the same time, a group of students and agitators, ostensibly protesting the tyranny of exams and the oppression of foreign-language requirements, are founding an anti-university in a field next to the campus.
Not far away, another, religious, community is being formed by the deeply troubled Joshua Ramsden, a theology student whose father, a Methodist lay preacher, murdered his mother and sister in a religious frenzy. The community's apocalyptic, Manichaean creed, in which the forces of good and evil in the world are equally strong, demands from them increasingly drastic mortifications of the flesh.
So student anarchists and religious hysterics are set against scientific rationalists and liberals whose creed of tolerance forces them to tolerate even those who wish to destroy all they value. By taking to extremes questions of faith and reason, of genetic determinism, of heredity and environment, of the nature of language and its effect on our scientific and moral knowledge, Byatt illuminates and challenges many of our prejudices and assumptions.
One academic in the novel wryly notes that "It takes only two generations to kill a culture that has taken centuries to evolve." The anti-university manages to inflict serious wounds on an intellectual institution and, symbolically, on its sustaining culture, in a matter of months. The novel ends in a series of conflagrations, and it is far from clear how much will survive.
Yet, over the long haul, cultures, like creatures, must mutate or die. Frederica, newly pregnant, and her son emerge from the emotional and physical ruins with all the world before them, but without "the slightest idea of what to do." "We shall think of something," her new lover announces. They must and they will.
In A Whistling Woman, as in all of her best books, Byatt's spine-chilling narrative and complex characters render its daunting intellectual heft almost weightless.
Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.