A rare thing - a novel that really grabbed my attention... (August 1999)


Book cover

Find it at Amazon.com

"Babel Tower" by Antonia Byatt

I have several difficulties with novels, the most basic that I'm hopeless at remembering names of characters (the problem with films is different: I'm also hopeless at recognising faces). This book is huge: 619 pages in hardback, for some reason cheaper than the paperback from amazon.com. It starts off with three, not obviously related threads, and lots of characters. After about 150 pages my determination was waning: two threads had come together, though the third (actually the book-within-a-book) obviously wasn't going to, and I'd drawn a chart of how who was related to whom - and lost it, so who the hell is Marcus? But somehow I persevered, and by about halfway through was beginning to want to know how things would turn out.

What's it about? At first sight mostly literature and bonking, which since most modern literature seems to be about bonking anyway doesn't amount to very much. But it has Plot, and Characters, richly characterised ones, with feelings and smells and ideas on writing. It's set in England in the 1960s, which is rather familiar territory for me (though this edition has an added "Note for American readers"). In the end the plot hangs on two trials, one for divorce - yep, lots of bonking material - and one, of the book-within-a-book, for obscenity - yep, the same. I couldn't help but read it as a tirade against the dishonesty, and simple unfairness of the Anglo-Saxon "football match" model of law: the prosecution and defence kick balls around, the judge enforces the rules, and the twelve selected members of the crowd award points.

This book is long, and there are skippable bits. For example, at one point the heroine, Frederica, starts snipping up the letters from her to-be-ex husband's solicitor, and rearranging words and phrases to make funny bits. Well, you can see that this could be amusing, but in the age of the Internet it's hardly necessary to churn out more than one example: we are surely capable of constructing our own, like the mailing list readers' light-bulb joke. Generally, though, it's a highly recommended read. I noticed one mistake: a reference to a computer language "Algo", which is obviously intended to be Algol. There's also less in it about snails than you might be led to think from the blurb.