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Reviewed by:
Jane Campbell. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2004. x + 310 pp.

Even readers acquainted solely with A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel Possession (1990) will recognize that between the covers of a Byatt volume can be found a veritable library, if not also an art gallery, that can intimidate even the most prepared and best educated reader. Add to this what Jane Campbell presents in her Introduction as Byatt's desire for "readers who 'listen . . . to texts until they [have] revealed their whole shape, their articulation, the rhythms of their ideas and feelings'" as well as for "her texts to be read 'as texts,' and herself to be seen as 'someone who weaves careful structures out of truths, lies, slanted comment, several originals'" (15), and anyone attempting to explore Byatt's densely populated fictional worlds will be greatly appreciative of having this usefully organized and insightful critical study as a guide. Campbell presents an introductory overview and close readings of Byatt's entire fictional production prior to Little Black Book of Stories (2004), which itself will more readily yield its treasures to the reader who has learned from Campbell the ways that metafictional interruptions and encyclopedic information enhance rather than digress from the multiple meanings of Byatt's fusions of fantasy and realism.

Campbell acknowledges that, with the success of Possession , an explosion in Byatt criticism produced many essays (some of which, including one by Campbell herself, appeared in a collection edited by Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble in 2001) and four full-length critical studies, but she rightly argues that while enriched by these sources, her new study goes beyond them in many ways. She could add as [End Page 696] well that, being among the handful of scholars who published essays about Byatt both before and after the appearance of Possession, her current study is grounded in years of research into and appreciation of her subject. In fact, earlier versions of three chapters of this study have been previously published, the essay expanded upon in chapter 3 having made its initial appearance in 1988. Campbell's study is further informed by her familiarity with Byatt's nonfictional writings and by a personal correspondence with the author.

Campbell argues that since the publication of Byatt's first novel as Shadow of a Sun in 1964 (which she changed to her original title of The Shadow of the Sun in the 1991 edition, asserting in the Introduction that "It is more what I meant. . . . The sun has no shadow, that is the point. You have to be the sun or nothing"), her fiction has focused on female artists and "women as thinkers and searchers for wisdom" (1). She chooses "heliotropic," the term Byatt uses to describe the artistic imagination, as the key signifier in her title because it best represents the cultural and linguistic challenges facing these women characters. Mythologized as sun gods being passively reflected in moon goddesses, the heliotropic imagination apparently belongs to men, but Campbell reveals the ways in which Byatt's talented and intelligent women struggle internally as well as externally against such an accepted truth and assert their own right "to be the sun or nothing." Tracing that struggle through Byatt's fiction, Campbell notes that, in Possession, Byatt finally offers "full-fledged female artistry, in the heliotropic imaginations of Christabel and Blanche" and that "at last the creative sun is gendered female in the poems of both Ash and Christabel" (20, 21).

However, while reversing the myth acknowledges female claims to creativity, it does not resolve either cultural or linguistic problems, as the costs to both Blanche and Christabel attest. "Byatt's heliotropic imagination has required a genderless sun," Campbell asserts earlier (16), and she offers Toril Moi's description of the third stage "feminist vision of a society in which the sexual signifier would be free to move" as best describing Byatt's own brand of feminism, praising her "open texts that, by eschewing dogmatism, deconstructing binaries of all kinds, and encouraging a plurality of readings, serve women well" (25).

From this overview, Campbell then proceeds to...

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