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on 11 February 2004
Byatt's style has been described as "postmodern Victorianism". This sounds a surreal phrase; but she does combine the tricksy literary gamesmanship of the postmodernists (stories within stories, self-referential narrative, occasional flash-forwards to the future) with a Victorian interest in intricacy of plot and characterisation. "Babel Tower" is a densely written tome of 600-plus pages, making extensive use of the story-within-a-story and riddled with Byatt's usual literary allusion; yet it reads like the tensest of thrillers. I stayed up all night reading it. For me, what makes the book so compelling is the utterly personal and visceral account of the violent breakdown of Frederica Potter's marriage to Nigel Reiver, and the traumas of her subsequent divorce. The reader will know Frederica from the previous two novels: cocky and fiercely intelligent. It is deeply shocking to find her, as the book opens, trapped by a domineering husband and his unmarried sisters in reluctant domesticity, isolated from her own friends, family and interests. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. Frederica's escape, and subsequent divorce, have the intensity of a personal account and the pace of a thriller.
Interspersed with this are passages from the fictitious novel "Babbletower", the unlikely work of one of Frederica's acquaintances which becomes the subject of an obscenity trial when it is accepted for publication. It is a thoroughly nasty, "Lord of the Flies"-ish tale of the disintegration of a Utopian community, founded with high ideals of total personal freedom, into bullying and sexual sadism. The book's obscenity prosecution is intercut with Frederica's ongoing divorce proceedings, allowing Byatt to draw unexpected parallels.
Both "Babbletower" and "Babel Tower" itself can be viewed as dark parables of Sixties anything-goes liberalism. Like George Eliot before her (she has named "Middlemarch" as her favourite Victorian novel), Byatt is a (small "c") conservative revolutionary, and clearly views liberalism as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the establishment is patriarchical and often repressive; on the other hand, chuck-it-all-out-and-start-again rebelliousness is seen as a darkly destructive force. Freedom must not mean freedom to hurt other people.
This barely scratches the surface: this is a big, complex, intellectually exhilarating novel of ideas, as well as an emotionally involving personal drama. If there was a 6-star rating, I'd be giving it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 October 2009
In this expository and intellectually demanding novel, A S Byatt has created something of a monster, theory-rich and deeply involved with the life of the mind. There are two stories alternating with one another. One is the story of Frederica, a clever Cambridge graduate who has succumbed to marriage with a businessman, Nigel, who caters for her sexually but otherwise expects her to become a shire wife in his sumptuous mansion, living with their small child Leo and his two much older sisters, plus live-in nanny. As the novel opens Frederica is beginning to realise she has made a terrible mistake. She always meant to do more with her restless and highly evolved intellect, but husband Nigel is determined to control her life. There is a large cast of characters, including lecturers, clergymen, educationalists and artists in these sections of the book.

The second story is a medieval tale of Culvert and the Lady Roseace who have gathered together a band of motley adherents and travelled deep into the countryside to found a new society which will be free from all inhibitions and the demands of the old order. It gradually emerges that this story is actually sections from a novel written by one of the characters of Frederica's story and when it is declared obscene we get chapter and verse of the trial.

We are at the beginning of the 60s, pre-feminism, but at a time when the old order was breaking down. The shock of the Christine Keeler affair has just rocked the political foundations of the country and England is about to swing towards the freedoms from class and privilege which seem to be available.

This is a highly enjoyable novel which is so securely sited in its time and place that, for people who lived through those years, the pleasure in recognition is one of its chief virtues. The echoes of the Lady Chatterley trial in the prosecution of the book is black humour incarnate - the trial is given a central place, while, at the same time, the divorce case of Frederica and Nigel occupies a similarly detailed exposition. Byatt leaves nothing out. Acrimony and anxiety as well as dark, almost bitter wit, flavour these pages to delicious effect. I particularly enjoyed the sections dealing with the investigative committee looking into different kinds of education. Byatt's sharp ear for the theoretically outlandish is put to wickedly enjoyable use.

This is not for the faint-hearted, being 622 pages and sometimes (in the novel within the novel) delving into sado-masochism. Chiefly, though, this book is about us and is deeply English in its outlook and sensibility. What we have become, what we might have done with our lives, what we want, which is not necessarily what we think we want, and how we got to where we are now. It is absolutely marvellous.
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on 5 April 2002
This is the third book in a trilogy (the others being 'The Virgin in the Garden' and 'Still Life'. It is definitely the best of the three. It entwines two themes rooted in the 1960s (the emancipation of the heroine, Frederica and an inquiry into the teaching of English) with a fantasy story - the subject of a blasphemy trial in Frederica's world. It is perhaps a bit self-indulgent in places (such as where Frederica experiments with cutting up and rearranging texts) but is a fascinating insight into the 1960s for this reviewer who was born to late to experience them.
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on 29 January 2009
I really feel that this is A S Byatt's magnum opus, more expansive and more engrossing than Possession. It is, of course, the third volume of the series loosely known as the `Frederica Quartet'. In The Virgin in the Garden we were introduced to the central figure, Frederica Potter, piercingly intelligent, ambitious and headstrong, who is stifled by life in 1950s provincial Yorkshire. In Still Life she has left home for the more liberal and lively world of Cambridge University. Here, in Babel Tower, we find her back in the country (Herefordshire), married with a child, and suffocated by a patrician husband who despises her friends and who denies her the freedom to pursue her own career. Her sole company are his sneering unmarried sisters and the child's contemptuous nanny. Desperately unhappy and frustrated, and tormented by her husband's chauvinism and increasing physical violence, she flees to London with her little boy to take up with her old circle of academic friends and to immerse herself in a more creative and stimulating milieu. This sets in motion a taut and emotional tug-of-love story handled with balance and delicacy and culminating in a gripping courtroom battle for divorce and custody.
That story alone would have made this novel an outstanding accomplishment but the setting is 1960s London and the social, political and cultural world is in a state of extreme flux. As an intellectual the changes swirl around Frederica's life in a heady mix as the values that underpin her ideological outlook face ever more challenges. We are treated to a signposted but non-clichéd rollercoaster ride through swinging sixties bohemian London and this is superbly contrasted with the sedate, more conservative life of her family and others who have chosen to remain in North Yorkshire. The second major strand of the book involves an extraordinary, dark fantasy novel called Babbletower, written by an unbalanced semi-recluse, long extracts of which are intercalated throughout the narrative. This book is a gruesome allegory of the original biblical parable of the Tower of Babel and becomes the subject of a Lady Chatterley-like obscenity trial, unfortunately coinciding with the emotive aftermath of the Moors Murders. A second courtroom drama again causes Frederica to review and modify her natural libertarian leanings.
Babel Tower is a dense, thought-provoking book of ideas and ponders greatly on how much freedom humans do and should have in this world, and the role of censorship. There is also a great deal on the reform of the sclerotic and often damaging British education system (as there is in every generation). The whole work is punctiliously researched with a cast of convincing and contrasting characters, and the author negotiates human emotions and relationships with a rare sensitivity and realism. It is written by the arch exponent of academic narrative but in a style that eschews the metropolitan pomposity of so many English novels, I believe, because of the down-to-earth Yorkshire origins of both the central character and the author herself. I only wish that I could write like that!
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This is the third novel in the Frederica Quartet. It is now the 1960s and Frederica is married with a child and already missing her world of books, work and intelligent friends. When I wrote about The Virgin In The Garden I referred to Frederica as "obnoxious" and after Still Life I said she was "clever but irritating". But now she has become a much more attractive character - likeable, questioning, thoughtful and passionately devoted to her son. The violent breakdown of her marriage and the subsequent divorce are both shockingly documented.

But Babel Tower is much more than the story of one woman - it is a splendid evocation of the sixties. Byatt draws on things we remember so well - the music, clothes, furnishings, education and food of the time - but it also reminds us of the abusive divorce laws of the time and the ludicrous obscenity trials.

There are many layers within the book including another novel Babbletower which is an Orwellian fantasy about a community seeking happiness but instead creating a cruel and wicked dystopia. I don't usually warm to fantasy but Babbletower was gripping - as was the subsequent trial of its author for obscenity. There are observations on the meaning of words and text, on freedom and liberalism, on love and passion - and so much more.....

It is challenging in parts but is nonetheless a wonderful read. Although (I think) it would be better to read the earlier two books first Babel Tower can be seen as a stand alone novel. I look forward to A Whistling Woman and am already wondering if Agatha's wonderful children's story will be continued in it?
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on 11 February 2001
I've never written a review before. But this is the best book I have ever read: a gripping story, a literary masterpiece, and a moral analysis all in one. I can't do it justice - there's so much going on in the book, and all 3 times I've read it, I've started it and it's been like an addiction: I just have to find out what happens next. But it also gets you thinking and reflecting - about love, censorship, English teaching, and who we all were in the 1960s; the role of government...
Everyone I've bought it for has loved it - particularly anyone who has had a bit of exposure to literary theory, philosophy or political theory. I've read most of Byatt's other work and this is by far the most wideranging and thoughtful. It beats Posession for gripping plot, it beats The Biographer's Tale for thoughtfulness (and competes with it for a version of postmodernism), it beats Angels and Insects for twists, it beats Virgin in the Garden on everything.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 November 2011
Having loved 'The Virgin in the Garden' and 'Still Life', I can still remember picking up 'Babel Tower' with great excitement when it came out in 1994, after the Potter family had been absent from Byatt's fiction for over five years. However, I have to say that I did not enjoy it nearly as much as the first two, though there are still some very fine passages of writing.

Part of the problem is that in Part III of the book, Byatt changed the structure of the novel. The first two novels in the 'Frederica' tetralogy had as a central leitmotif Alexander Wedderburn's latest play: in 'The Virgin in the Garden' a play about Queen Elizabeth I; in 'Still Life' a play about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh. But by 'Babel Tower' Alexander (who is only a minor character in this novel) seems to have ceased to be a playwright altogether and instead become an educational specialist. In place of Alexander's play we get long, at times rather tedious excerpts from the novel 'Babbletower', written by a strange part-time artists' model and general vagabond Jude Mason. The writing in the 'Babbletower' sections is extremely stylized and very slightly precious - it's hard to care about any of the characters in it, and I was left slightly uncertain as to why Byatt had included so much of Jude's book; was it meant to be a symbol of the carelessness and violence of the 1960s? To provide an excuse for the lengthy literary trial at the end of the book and thus comment on the changing views on literature in the 1960s? Was Jude meant to be 'a prophet for our times'? Whatever he was meant to be, his extremely mannered and often rather pretentious behaviour didn't endear him to this particular reader; although Byatt did eventually provide an explanation for why Jude had turned out the way he did, it came a bit late to really engage our sympathies. My overall feeling about 'Babbletower' was similar to my one about the pastiche poetry in 'Possession' - hugely skilful but in the end not terrifically interesting. At least with Alexander's plays Byatt made the wise decision not to reproduce chunks of them.

Fairytales are a major theme in this book (another character is writing a fantasy for young readers which is quoted at length); and Frederica is working on a pretentiously-titled book called 'Laminations', expressing the confusion and fragmentary nature of foreign life (we get big quotes from this too, and I couldn't quite see the point of reproducing Frederica's 'cut up' letter collages - they didn't make entertaining reading! The theme of the fairytale has, for the first time in the quartet, crept into Byatt's main story, which is full of larger-than-life events and deliberately eccentric characters, often with rather unbelievable names (Elvet Gander; Adalbert Holly; Avram Snitkin; Pippy Mammott etc etc). The delicate realism of the first two novels has become tinged with the grotesque. Thus the breakdown of Frederica and Nigel's marriage is not really quite credible, as Nigel has gone from being the well-observed, perhaps slightly limited but also very sensual English gent of 'Still Life' into being a grotesque Bluebeard figure, flinging axes about and ramming people's heads into doors. The characters who step out to defend or accuse Jude during his book trial are all slightly larger than life, and archetypes rather than people. Frederica's new lover John Ottakar is an identical twin whose twin brother is a hippie pop star who burns books while enacting a war dance, and who is part of a consciousness-raising group called the Spirit's Tigers. No one is quite as subtly depicted as in the first two novels in the tetralogy, and no one is as interesting (though to be fair to Byatt she writes very well on Frederica's uncertainty after her divorce, her life as a mother and her vulnerability, and on Bill and Winifred's finding of peace and love in their relationship with their grandchildren). I came to the conclusion Byatt was growing less and less interested in her characters as people, and more interested in creating a sense of the spirit of an age.

Unfortunately, this means that the book turns often into an academic lecture on the 1960s. Did we, for example, need a 40-page section discussing the national curriculum in the 1960s? A massive lecture on the point of grammar? Why does Jude's literary trial take up so much of the book when Jude himself never quite comes to life as a character? Why do we get so many quotes from Frederica's 'Laminations' in place of more information about her day-to-day life and her complex relationships, first with Thomas Poole, and later with John Ottakar, and her developing female friendships? And all too often we feel that the descriptions of books, raves, extra-mural classes, parties, art schools etc. are in there to show us how good Byatt's research of the 1960s has been (and it has!) rather than to give the story a good shape, and lead us to a deeper understanding of the characters' lives. With all this detail, other interesting bits get left out. Gideon Farrar, a fascinating character in 'Still Life', becomes a violent cult-leader; Marcus's relationship with Ruth (who becomes a cult member) is insufficiently explored; Agatha, though compelling as a character, remains a bit too mysterious; and Daniel, once a major part of the story, fades somewhat into the background. There's also some careless copy-editing at times (easy to happen in such a massive book). Frederica's flat appears to have two kitchens but no bathroom; Gideon's wife is Clemency (not Charity as she's later credited); Nigel's Herefordshire house was initially described in 'Still Life' as being in the West Country; Leo appears to 'stick' at the same age for quite some time, and there were a couple of other tiny details that should have been checked.

This is not to say that Babel Tower is an incompetent book. In fact, the frustrating thing about it is that there is some really beautiful writing at times, some wonderful descriptive passages, and some interesting characters. But the author's desire both to show that she's done her historical research very well, and to create a slightly 'fantastic' atmosphere to go with the 'fantastic' and 'surreal' atmosphere of the 1960s means that we can't engage very easily with the characters, and that there are quite a lot of longeurs.

An interesting book, but a rather tiring and only partly fulfilling read!
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on 25 December 2014
I bought this book years ago and it has been mouldering on my shelves for a long time but took it down, dusted it off and have been unable to put it down over the past few days. As a child of the post war era, it speaks to me personally, especially with the references to feminism and the post-modernist changes in education affecting mainstream education and art schools where formal approaches were completely abandoned. The difficulties of Federica, the main character, in obtaining a divorce, in spite of her husband's abusive and extreme violence towards her - behaviour today which would receive zero tolerance - made me feel very angry indeed. Unfortunately, the counter-revolution in the era depicted was necessary at the time but has resulted in a breakdown of the family and a rise in illiteracy and innumeracy in school leavers owing to misguided notions about "child centred education." Read it for yourselves for a true flavour of that era.
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on 27 July 2010
Absolutely mindblowing follow up to Virgin in the Garden and Still life! I can imagine picking all three books up again in the future for another read and I still have A Whistling Woman to look forward to. This series is phenomenal! I can't praise it enough. I have absolutely loved all three books and as usual Byatt's writing is faultless. In Babel Tower as in it's predecessors, Byatt handles controversial subjects with relative ease through her consistently beautiful writing. This particular book is packed with so much brilliant writing that it's overwhelming at times. I am in awe and I don't really want the series to end as it must! Just breathtakingly brilliant!
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on 16 December 2003
The third of the Frederica Potter series of novels is by far the best. Fiendishly ambitious, knotted, segmented, difficult and demanding, only a writer of such skill could have pulled the strands of this book together. It has precise historical placing and context, a wonderful plot. It is erudite, and has a narrative style that taxes and rewards. A truly wonderful novel.
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