Monday, June 19, 2017

Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt

Babel Tower is an exploration of England in the 1960's, when so many things in society changed.  It focuses on two plots.  The first is the story of Frederica.  She had been an intellectual child who went to Cambridge when that was still not the norm and became very popular and the center of attention of a group of young men.  Afterwards, rather than marrying one of them and becoming an author as everyone expected, she instead married a man from the landed gentry, Nigel.  Her sister had died in a freak accident and she wanted a complete break from what she had known.  The couple had a son, Leo.  But country life in a house full of Nigel's relatives soon palled.   Frederica felt stifled and that her intellectual life was stymied.  When she met her old crowd by happenstance, things came to a head.  Nigel forbade her to see them and when she didn't agree, started to physically abuse her.  She fled in the night, taking Leo with her.

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.

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