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the Complete Review
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Still Life


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To purchase Still Life

Title: Still Life
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985
Length: 384 pages
Availability: Still Life - US
Still Life - UK
Still Life - Canada
Still Life - India
Nature morte - France
Stilleben - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive sweep

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Antioch Review . 1986 N. Miller
New Statesman A+ 28/6/1985 Roger Lewis
Sunday Times . 30/6/1985 Peter Jones
TLS . 28/6/1985 Adam Mars-Jones

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)mong the best new novels I've ever read. (...) Byatt, at last, shows that a novel can think about itself without resorting to nervous Borgesian paper-puzzles, tricks, tics." - Roger Lewis, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Still Life is the second volume of Byatt's tetralogy centred around the Potter family (and mainly Frederica); see also our reviews of parts three (Babel Tower) and four (A Whistling Woman). Still Life covers the mid-1950s. The Potter children are at the centre of things: these are Frederica's Cambridge years (bookended by brief befores and afters), while older sister Stephanie has given up academia and settled into married life. Muddled brother Marcus also potters around, living with Stephanie and her husband Daniel when the book begins, and looking to get a grip on things.
       Stephanie, a gifted student, has some troubles adjusting to the boredom and routine of domestic life. When the novel begins she is pregnant, and by the end she has two small children, but it doesn't make for anything approaching complete fulfilment for this intellectual being. Her husband notes:

A verbal lot, the Potters, even peaceful Stephanie. Words helped them, apparently.
       Words generally, and literature specifically -- but much of that world and reassurance is beyond her once she's tied down by husband and children. Among the grimly hilarious scenes are Stephanie's desperate demands for her books when she is giving birth. She can't get the books, or when she can can barely read them: the world she longs for (and belongs in), Byatt makes clear, is lost in motherhood. Attempts to get on with her own life meet with limited success; when she first ventures outside the house without her newborn to spend some time at the library it all, of course, comes to a near-catastrophic end.
       Stephanie isn't miserable, but her life has essentially been ruined, and Byatt punishes her for it in the end. A generous gesture, as Stephanie reaches out to help a lost, helpless creature, leads to tragedy: the only thing Byatt apparently saw fit to do with this wasted life. (Note that many reviews of the two following volumes in this quartet mention what happens; readers might prefer to find out for themselves.)
       Frederica, on the other hand, is here a much freer spirit, unwilling to get tied down (at least until the bitter end). Before heading off to Cambridge she summers in France (as an au pair of sorts), and once at university she takes advantage of the overwhelming male to female ratio and has herself a swell old time.
       Frederica makes friends, and makes an impression. Byatt loosely recounts various Cambridge (mis)adventures and experiences, without focussing too closely on the academics. The academics are practically a given: Frederica is also a clever girl, and an intellectual:
     "Can't you just be in a place, Frederica ?"
     "No. I think. I have to think."
       But even at Cambridge she doesn't get entirely bogged down in the scholarly (and near the end faces a choice between academia and the real world). Among those she is attracted to is the extremely cerebral Raphael Faber -- a stark contrast to action-man Nigel Reiver who treats (and woos) her in a, to her, completely unaccustomed fashion.
       Other figures also figure prominently, from confused Marcus to Daniel's horrible Mum to writer Alexander Wedderburn, whom Francisca loved desperately. Wedderburn writes a Van Gogh-play, and Van Gogh is a significant (as both artist and failed family man) and much-considered figure throughout the novel.
       A great deal happens in the book -- years of these characters' lives pass, after all -- but it's also a theoretical work. An odd touch is the very occasional intrusion of the authorial I, a reminder of both the possibilities and limitations of fiction. So, for example, Byatt suddenly acknowledges:
The language with which I might try to order Frederica's hectic and somewhat varied sexual life in 1954-55 was not available to Frederica then.
       Byatt is also willing to expose artifice much more clearly, admitting suddenly:
     The germ of this novel was a fact that was also a metaphor: a young woman, with a child, looking at a tray of earth in which unthinned seedlings on etiolated pale stalks died in the struggle for survival. She held in her hand the picture of a flower, the seed packet with its bright image. Nasturtium, Giant Climbing, mixed.
       Byatt's novel isn't always attractive, but it is deep and rich and convincing. Almost all of the characters are flawed, some deeply so. Weaknesses are bared and exposed. The tragedies that frame the book -- deaths near the beginning and end -- are all the more poignant for their horrible banality.
       The book is very richly populated, and some of the secondary characters aren't entirely convincing blips -- conveniently appearing and then ignored or forgotten. Even the main characters aren't always entirely satisfactorily followed, though Frederica, Stephanie, and Daniel, in particular, are largely nicely presented.
       As part of the tetralogy, Still Life impresses greatly, and even standing on its own it's a very fine piece of work.

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Still Life: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt lived 1936 to 2023. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she was the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She was the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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