August 1, 2016

Book: The Whistling Woman by A S Byatt

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:44 am

imageA S Byatt is known for writing offbeat stories and it was with very great interest that I read this book. The interest and expectations did not last long. Let us see why. First, a bit about the story.


Francesca is in an illicit affair with John Ottomer of the Ottomer twins. John is Leo’s  father. In the meanwhile, Luk, a snail researcher is in vain in love with Jacqueline, a fellow researcher, who seems to be pining for Marcus Potter, who is mild and ineffective. .


Well, this is like watching a plant grow.


Sir Wijnnoble is a dean of the university and is contemplating a Mind and Body seminar.

Meanwhile, Francesca lands herself a TV spot after resigning from her teaching job in protest of a new philosophy of teaching being adopted in the school, about how you learn as you live, and not through any structured format. If you thought this was boring, just wait.


Then follows a really boring letter exchange between two doctors about a lot of patients and a lot of incomprehensible philosophy and you recognize some of the ones having issues and attending a kind of informal Quaker psychotherapy sessions are the Ottomar twins. There is also the crazy person in the asylum that you have briefly met before.


Gunner and Lucy quarrel and she slashes him with a rake and he battered her. Jacquiline, Marcus and Luk come upon them and Luk and Marcus go with Lucy and Jacquiline stays with Gunner. They rescue the children, who have scalp wounds and wait until the police come and take charge of the case. Lucy goes to the asylum with the other inmates. Josh Lamb, another inmates hallucinates and knows it. He sees blood oozing from body part of people he is talking to.


His back story is about the only interesting thing so far. His dad murders his mother and his sister and runs away. He escapes only because unknown to his strict father but with the permission of his mother, he had, for the first time in his life, had gone for a sleepover with his friend and came home only the next morning, to find his mother’s and sister’s corpses.


The struggles of Josh Lamb (or Joshua Ramsey as he used to be known) are very well told and the language held me enough to read this book till the end.


Josephine and Frederica come alternately and you are confused as to who is who sometimes. They seem to feel and act like the same person, which is one of the main reasons for the confusion.


Marcus is a mathematical genius who sees numbers everywhere and Hodgkins is fascinated.


A whole lot of letters reveal that among the ‘inmates’ of an asylum with therapy sessions is a scientist masquerading as an insane person who wants to study the others in situ, so to speak.


The group sessions, which you think of therapy for insane turns weird when Joshua becomes leader of a cult group and they all move to a farm owned and now donated by the so far catatonic but now animated Lucy. They go into a kind of a weird Manichean religious philosophy which, while being part pagan, also reinterprets Christianity with Jesus representing Light which is imprisoned in people and fruits etc and darkness in the earth and the beasts.


We realize that Hodgekiss is homosexual and loves Marcus.


There is a riot in the university by the anti-university nuts, and even the Principal’s wife participates in the destruction of university property. They release all the lab animals to free them from cruelty. No, I am not saying all this in a disjointed way. The entire story is narrated in this disjointed way. I don’t think that there is a person alive who would be animated and waiting to read if you reach up to this point. It may be a good thing. Why, you ask?


The cult goes from bad to worse when a girl gets pregnant (with no one knowing who is the father) and delivers without outside help. Another girl died and is quietly buried.


Lots of weird stuff. People seem to have sex with no thought and then wonder if they love the person they had sex with. Frederica talks about women’s freedom to have sex and discovers she is pregnant.


Book ends in a kind of a cinematic abruptness and a lot of deep thought with little substance in it.


Also, on a side note : every man in the story seems to have a beard. Interesting.


Overall, a disappointment, very odd story.


Well, who the hell is the whistling woman? Who knows, even at the end of the book? Your guess is as good as mine.


3/ 10


–  – Krishna


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