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Babel Tower Paperback – June 24, 1997
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Babel Tower follows The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life in tracing Frederica Potter, a lover of books who reflects the author's life and times. It centers around two lawsuits: in one, Frederica -- a young intellectual who has married outside her social set -- is challenging her wealthy and violent husband for custody of their child; in the other, an unkempt but charismatic rebel is charged with having written an obscene book, a novel-within-a-novel about a small band of revolutionaries who attempt to set up an ideal community. And in the background, rebellion gains a major toehold in the London of the Sixties, and society will never be the same. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
Nigel insists he wants her back and storms around trying to find her and terrorizing her friends and family. The book explores the themes of women who want to work outside the home, the difficulty of doing so as a single mother, spousal abuse, society's changing mores about women, religion, sex, education, the best environment for a child and work.
The other subplot is about freedom in literature and the changing setting of society and what it will accept in the name of freedom of expression. It revolves around a novel written by a thoroughly unpleasant man named Jude Mason. The novel is about a dystopian society that falls into one of sexual excesses and cruelty and is considered obscene and charged as such. There is a trial in which the limits of society are explored. The Moors Murders case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley serves as backdrop for this case. It was the most prominent child murder case of its time and many considered it a bellwether of how society changes were taking the world into dark, wretched places.
This is a huge novel that attempts to explain all of life in a specific time period. Readers may or may not like Frederica who is not a very sympathetic character but she is a model of how society has changed in considering a women's role. Most facets of society are portrayed along with the changes the sixties brought to each. The author, A.S. Byatt, won the Booker Prize for her novel Possession and that intellect and ability to explore society is a real reason for her success. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.
In any case, the story revolves around two thematically connected plots. In the 1960s Frederica Potter is a young woman trapped in a stifling marriage that soon turns violent. With her young son she escapes into the night, but naturally her husband isn't prepared to give either one of them up that easily. Soon Frederica is facing a court case that calls into question her abilities as a mother, with the entire deck stacked in her husband's favour: he has money, prestige, respectability, and female family members willing to disparage Frederica in court.
Both the domestic abuse and the ensuing court case are quite disturbing, with Byatt exploring the hypocrisies and injustices of pitting an intellectual, liberated woman against a system that's still archaic in its upkeep of moral standards. Here is slut-shaming, gas-lighting, condescension, and (perhaps worst of all) women betraying women for the sake of a domineering male.
The secondary plot involves a book called "Babbletower" written by one of Frederica's acquaintances that she recommends for publication. On its release it is deemed perverse by censors and (much like Frederica) put on trial to assess the damage it might do to society.
Using a book-within-a-book strategy (rather like she did in Possession) passages from "Babbletower" are strewn throughout the novel, detailing a group of aristocrats fleeing from the Revolution and attempting to form a utopia in an abandoned country tower. Pure intentions eventually give way to depravity and violence, though the question remains whether the book's content is too obscene for public consumption.
So "Babel Tower" is a novel in which a woman and a book are put on trial, both for reasons that are closely related to the uninhibited sexuality they display (or flaunt, if you're one of their detractors). Like many of Byatt's books, it's occasionally bogged down with period details and literary allusions, and is initially quite difficult to sort out the dizzying array of characters. In my second-hand copy of the book I was amused to find a folded bit of paper upon which was written a list of the characters and their relationships to each other; an attempt by the book's previous owner to keep track of everyone!
But for the patient reader there is plenty to enjoy: a harrowing depiction of an emotionally/physically abusive marriage, a close character study of a young woman struggling to free herself from the expectations/values of others, a vivid depiction of mid-1960s England, and several thought-provoking themes explored in Byatt's careful, detailed prose.