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Babel Towerby A. S. Byatt
Synopses & Reviews
At the heart of Babel Tower are two law cases, twin strands of the Establishment's web, that shape the story: a painful divorce and custody suit and the prosecution of an "obscene" book. Frederica, the independent young heroine, is involved in both. She startled her intellectual circle of friends by marrying a young country squire, whose violent streak has now been turned against her. Fleeing to London with their young son, she gets a teaching job in an art school, where she is thrown into the thick of the new decade. Poets and painters are denying the value of the past, fostering dreams of rebellion, which focus around a strange, charismatic figure — the near-naked, unkempt and smelly Jude Mason, with his flowing gray hair, a hippie before his time.
We feel the growing unease, the undertones of sex and cruelty. The tension erupts over his novel Babbletower, set in a past revolutionary era, where a band of people retire to a castle to found an ideal community. In this book, as in the courtrooms, as in the art school's haphazard classes and on the committee set up to study "the teaching of language," people function increasingly in groups. Many are obsessed with protecting the young, but the fashionable notion of children as innocent and free slowly comes to seem wishful, and perilous.
Babel Tower is the third, following The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, of a planned quartet of novels set in different mid-century time frames. The personal and legal crises of Frederica mirror those of the age. This is the decade of the Beatles, the Death of God, the birth of computer languages. In Byatt's vision, the presiding genius of the 1960s seems to be a blend of the Marquis de Sade and The Hobbit. The resulting confusion, charted with a brilliant imaginative sympathy, is as comic as it is threatening and bizarre.
In her first full-length work of fiction since Possession, for which she won the Booker Prize, A. S. Byatt interweaves the private passions of a large number of characters with the chaotic drama of 1960s England.
The protagonist of Babel Tower is Frederica Potter, the brainy, independent heroine of two previous Byatt novels. Now she is fleeing an abusive marriage and trying to find her way in a world where sex, schooling, and even language are being reinvented.
Byatt juxtaposes Frederica's narrative with a disturbing book-within-a-book, a monstrous Sadeian fable whose author will be put on trial for obscenity at the same time that Frederica finds herself fighting in court for the right to keep her son. What ensues is a novel as gripping as any courtroom thriller, abundantly atmospheric, sardonically funny, and crackling with Byatt's signature ardor and erudition.
About the Author
A.S. Byatt is the author of Possession, winner of the Booker Prize and a national bestseller. The two novels leading up to Babel Tower, which trace the fortunes of Frederica and her family through the 1950's, are The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. Byatt's other fiction includes The Shadow of the Sun, The Game, Angels and Insects and two collections of shorter works: Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories. She has also published three volumes of critical work, of which Passions of the Mind is the most recent. She has taught English and American literature at University College, London, and is a distinguished critic and reviewer. She lives in London.
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