June 17, 2003

A Whistling Woman, A. S. Byatt

Far too good for me to write a real review of. (If you haven't read any Byatt, start with the short stories or The Virgin in the Garden, the first of the quartet ending with Whistling....

But one funny thing I noticed; Margaret Atwood writes science fiction and denies it. Richard Powers writes fiction about science that certainly gets very woo-woo close to science fiction but, AFAIK, never gets called on it. Byatt has a chunk of a fantasy novel in here, but it's pretending to be written by a character, so her use of fantasy tropes to say things about real life slides under the radar. Also, of course, whatever she's saying isn't obvious; and since she got away with writing some invented Browning and Rossetti, moreorless, in Possession, what's a little invented heroic fantasy?

Her characters judge some of the things going on around them in terms of Tolkien:

Leo thought that if Tolkien had been describing this music he would have said that it was like the endless rippling of a brook, with rapids and whirlypools. There were quite a few Tolkienish people in the audience, people with silvery bands round their brows and those sort of flimsy shirts which flared out to pointy cuffs and dangled. Leo didn't like to see them. They looked sort of made-up and unreal, and in some way diminished the shining reality of the Tolkien-world in his head. (p. 342)
Leo is a child; but the people doing Tolkien badly around him are adults, if barely. Helps fill in my sense of whether Tolkien was actually in the public consciousness in 1970, or just those of a few students. (I was a babe in arms, myself.)

Along with pretty, imagistic writing, this novel has a lot of plot - plots are laid, hearts traded, buildings burn down, madness proves prophetic or not, long-kept secrets are finally revealed. However, the events and their people are not as perpetually dispiriting as I found them in Babel Tower, its immediate predecessor. Relief!

ISBN: 0-375-41534-3 So wrote clew in Fiction (21st c.). | TrackBack

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