A. S. Byatt is something rare in contemporary literature: a fiercely intellectual writer who nevertheless manages to make her work accessible to readers who are less intellectually inclined. She achieves this more successfully in some of her books than in others: Possession, of course, was her most commercial, and possibly her best, effort.

Babel Tower, the third novel of a planned quartet (the first two are The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life) is as compellingly readable as Possession, though it might perhaps appeal to a rather smaller group of readers. It is an ambitious work that raises any number of interlocking questions, and in telling its ostensible story—the not unusual one of a woman’s search for meaning and wholeness outside of marriage—it engages many of the contradictions of nineteenth and twentieth century literature and philosophy.

It is 1964....

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