Unread, now read book 10 – A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt

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Coming in at number ten on my unread, now read list (in a neat twist, as this is the tenth book by A.S.Byatt that I have now read) is A Whistling Woman. The last of Byatt’s ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’, A Whistling Woman portrays Frederica in the late 1960s and her reaction to all of the extraordinary social changes that was happening so rapidly at this time. I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you haven’t read the other novels in the Quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower) as I don’t think it stands alone as well as Still Life, and you will get more out of it if you have traced her journey from her 17-year-old self through to the 33-year-old she is in this novel.

Particularly interesting in A Whistling Woman is the general attitude towards television, which is still in its infancy; the newly-formed BBC is looking around for programming ideas, and decide they need a programme that hosts a very cerebral, political and philosophical debate with guest talking heads – reality tv isn’t even a twinkle in an executive’s eye at this point! Frederica is offered the role of hosting the weekly debate accepts and is thrust into the brave new world of television with very little, well no, training. Running in parallel with Frederica’s story, are the stories of her friends, her lover and her family, back in her native Yorkshire; an ‘anti-university’ is being promoted to students who are currently following studies at a traditional university; a cult is forming around a psychologically-disturbed man at a farm nearby; all of the stories intertwining and acting as a catalyst upon one another.

Always erudite, crammed with literary, biblical and philosophical allusions and references, but wearing her learning lightly, Byatt dazzles again in this novel. However, I have to admit though that Possession will always be my favourite novel of hers, partly because I have a weakness for Victorian-esque literature and partly because it has everything – a quest, multiple love stories, fabulous poetry. So if you haven’t read any Byatt, start with Possession, then The Game, and then move onto the ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’. If you get through all of those, come back to me and I will suggest more of hers to read!

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Unread, now read book 9 – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

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From outback Australia in my last read, to a small-minded village in the English countryside in this one. Much as I am struggling with my (self-prescribed) reading list, I am enjoying the randomness of my current reading. Usually I read a couple of similar books in a row, maybe Golden Age crime novels, or Booker prize winners, or Australian-themed, dystopian novels, etc. Reading in such a disconnected way is quite liberating; I find the juxtaposition of the novels I am reading one after the other add, rather than detract, from my enjoyment of them.

And so, onto book 9, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Major Pettigrew is rather a dear. He could easily have been turned into a cliché by the author, Helen Simonson, but actually from the moment he is introduced, reeling from a phone call that has informed him his brother has died, Major Pettigrew confounds the reader’s expectations of how a retired major should behave. His growing friendship with Mrs Ali, the English-Pakistani owner of the local shop, is beautifully drawn as is his dawning realization that she means more to him than anything else – including the opinion of his neighbours who struggle to welcome and approve of this friendship. Throw in his self-obsessed ‘city boy’ son, a snobbish social committee, an ineffectual vicar and the casual racism displayed by the local golf club members and you have a lovely modern manners novel.

Don’t get me wrong, Simonson is no Austen but this village life novel, with its insular characters, rather charmed me. Well, to be fair Mrs Ali and Major Pettigrew did. Some of the more far-fetched plot developments felt a little forced and, in my mind, were clichés and/or distracting but on the whole a nice read. Not a novel I would necessarily re-read, or even recommend as a ‘must-read’ to friends, but a nice read.