Although A.S. Byatt's new novel is set in 1960s London and the action centers around two very modern trials -- a divorce/custody battle and an obscenity prosecution -- and although the characters read and argue about Kafka and D.H. Lawrence and the heroine is a woman struggling for independence, the heart of "Babel Tower" belongs to the 19th century. This is the sort of fat, serious, passionate book that George Eliot and Thomas Hardy wrote, a good read and an ambitious creation by an author who behaves as if James Joyce never existed -- and gets away with it.
The novel begins as the fiercely bookish Frederica Reiver realizes she's made a terrible and irrevocable mistake. Stricken by the accidental death of her sister and dazzled by sex, she married Nigel, a rich, wolfish squire with whom she produced one beloved son, Leo. The marriage has degenerated into captivity and violence, and she flees for the city, Leo in tow, to resume her life as an intellectual surrounded by her Cambridge-educated friends. "I must work," Frederica avers, landing a job with a publisher who, on her recommendation, puts out a book, "Babeltower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time," about an anything-goes utopian community where everything goes very, very bad. The hair-raising Sadean hijinks depicted by the book's author, Jude Mason, land both author and publisher in court.
If Byatt never successfully captures the fizzy, fragmented sensibility of the pop-maddened '60s, she does something more rare: frame the usually simplified "social issues" of the era with the agonized moral complexity of her Victorian forebearers. There are no easy, self-righteous answers here. As for sheer fun, Byatt flaunts her gift for literary mimickry to excellent effect. From Jude Mason's creepily over-ripe fairy tale prose, to a scientific treatise on snail sexuality, to the minutes of a committee charged with reporting on "language and children," to tantalizing slivers from an engaging fantasy-adventure yarn, this novel, like all of Byatt's, teems with the voices of a dozen imaginary books.
Byatt has described her love of the novel as something "you can put the whole world into." Often enough, however, she and her characters have made a world of books. "They are her books," thinks Frederica of her collection, "and not only her books, but part of herself." Byatt writes like a novelist who believes that her work really can matter that deeply, and more often than not, she's right.