The Little Black Book of Stories Paperback – Nov 29 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
From secret agonies to improper desires and the unthinkable, this slyly titled collection touches on more than a little bit of darkness. Booker Prize–winning author Byatt (Possession) masterfully fuses fantasy with realism in several of these stories, packing a punch with her sometimes witty, sometimes horrifying examinations of faith, art and memory. In the stunning "The Thing in the Wood," two young girls, Penny and Primrose, sent to the countryside during the WWII London blitz, confront the unconscious come to life as a monster ("its expression was neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery.... It was made of rank meat, and decaying vegetation"). They return in middle age to face the Thing again, but Penny, a psychotherapist, doesn't fare as well as Primrose, a children's storyteller. A lapsed Catholic gynecologist tries to rescue a starving artist in "Body Art," enacting what Byatt casts as the very obstructiveness of the Church he left behind. It's a chilling story that shines with grace. Byatt's modern-day fairy tale, "A Stone Woman," details a woman's metamorphosis from flesh to stone, which is both terrible and redemptive ("Jagged flakes of silica and nodes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh"). In "Raw Material," a creative writing teacher finds inspiration in the work of an elderly student who comes to a gruesome end, the student's life and death imitating bad art very unlike her own. The haunting final story of the collection, "The Pink Ribbon," about a man who is more troubled by remembering than by forgetting as he cares for his Alzheimer's-addled wife, turns on the appearance of the ghost of the wife's former self. With an accomplished balance of quotidian detail and eloquent flights of imagination, Byatt has crafted a powerful new collection.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Byatt is commanding. Her prose is crisp and astringent. Her insights are lacerating, her approach sly, her visions searing, her wit honed, and her imagination peripatetic and larcenous, feasting on art, myth, fairy tales, and science. While her novels, including the brilliant A Whistling Woman (2002) and the Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990), are complex and powerful, her short stories are dazzling concentrates. As in her earlier collections, The Matisse Stories (1995), The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1997), and Elementals (1999), Byatt creates, in her newest set of gems, a palimpsest of art and life as she examines how each shapes the other, and how trauma, be it personal or the mass psychosis of war, irrevocably transforms personalities and lives. In several galvanizing and highly original tales, including "Body Art," in which a gynecologist reluctantly gets involved with an angry young artist, she postulates deeply intriguing conflicts over the sacredness and profanity of the body and the vulnerability of the mind. And once again, Byatt proves herself to be the queen of fractured fairy tales. In "The Thing in the Woods," two young girls evacuated from London at the start of World War II see something loathsome in the forest, a grotesque embodiment of evil, while "A Stone Woman" stands as a gloriously beautiful evocation of grief and metamorphosis. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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A woman loses her mother. The relationship, while lightly touched upon, was probably an inseparable one (the daughter states, "She was the flesh of my flesh. I was the flesh of her flesh.") Post the mother's death, her daughter begins to turn to stone but not just any stone; she begins layer by layer to manifest the various exotic stones found in Iceland. They are veined, with complex glints of underlying colors and multiple hues.
Then there is an Icelandic sculptor who goes to enormous difficulty to bring her rigid, statue-like self back to the land of his ancestors. Was this all a metaphor for a woman who was experiencing grief? An unmarried woman, the reader might conjecture, who was faced with an enormous personal transformation without her mother? One who needed a sculptor to introduce her to the real and essential self whom she had not previously recognized?
The bizarre journey proceeds as the reader meets the members of a writing class, experiences the rich memories of its oldest class member, as she describes everyday life when running a household was much more labor intensive. There was the cast iron stove to be kept highly polished on a daily basis, the laundry that was to be boiled, stirred and immersed into multiple rinses. Then came the laborious ironing! The woman's writings depicted a gentle, hardworking woman, and an anachronism to other class members who tore her writings apart because of their being perceived as commonplace. Who is she really? The writing class teacher later discovers part of her mystery...much to his horror!
A pink ribbon is the only adornment of a woman whose very self is being lost to dementia. Through a "tarted up" ghost, the reader discovers her in retrospect. To say more is to spoil!
Byatt is a genius! The stories might seem just that ... short stories. It's the pondering and opportunities for analysis that the stories invite. There exist many possibilities for each of the characters, their lives, their challenges, their joys and obstacles. Byatt layers her challenges to the reader. On the surface, what were the stories about? But beneath the layers, what were the stories really about?
"The Thing in the Forest" opens with a pair of young girls wandering in the woods -- only to come across a ghastly, inhuman monster. That monster haunts their memories as they grow up separately. "Body Art" tells of a obstetrician and his strange quasi-romantic relationship with a messed-up art student, which raises questions about birth, death and love.
"A Stone Woman" is born after surgery, when Ines finds that her body is slowly changing into a form of living stone. "Raw Material" takes a nasty twist, when a creative writing class, and a strange story, ends in murder. And "The Pink Ribbon" introduces James, an old man caring for his senile wife Mado... until a strange young woman with a connection to Mado comes into his life.
The thing that links the parts of "Book" together is the fantastical and horrific. "Body Art" is the one that doesn't fit in, since it's all solidly set in the real world; but the rest is a mass of Icelandic troll-women, ghosts of people who are still alive, and the Loathly Worm. Even "Raw" is a horror story, based on the evil that people can do.
Byatt's stories are beautifully self-contained, even if they don't always end on a completely conclusive note (the exception being "Thing," which feels unfinished). And her writing is still outstanding, flexible and versatile; she can write like a child or an intellectual, a writer or a scientist. She goes slightly overboard describing the various kinds of stone that the "Stone Woman" turns into, but that's a minor detail.
Richly-written and wonderfully evocative, "Little Black Book of Stories" is a rewarding if slightly flawed collection of Byatt's latest. An excellent way to pass a sunny afternoon.
Sometimes literally so. The central story, "A Stone Woman," features a middle-aged woman who feels herself turning slowly into stone, and her friendship with an Icelandic sculptor engaged in the reverse process, of finding the life hidden in rocks and boulders. The woman's observation of her own transformation shows Byatt's writing at its most iridescent: "She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals, breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john."
Compare the simplicity with which the book opens: "There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest. The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety-pins, and they carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas-mask." As the simple details pile up, Byatt takes us back, not just into childhood, but the specific childhood of Londoners of our generation at the start of the Blitz. Rather at C. S. Lewis does at the start of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, she creates a context of dislocated reality, in which fabulous things can happen. Lewis's children grew up and had to leave Narnia behind, but Byatt's two schoolgirls are affected for the rest of their lives, though in different ways. One seeks refuge in objectivity and becomes a scientist, the other becomes a storyteller, but both feel a strong need to revisit this first magic at least once in later life.
In "Raw Material," a teacher of creative writing praises the work of an older student of extraordinary talent, but is ignorant of the real-life circumstances that give rise to it. In "The Pink Ribbon," the husband of a woman suffering from senile dementia (itself a form of story-making), receives a surprise visitor who persuades him to rewrite the narrative of his marriage from another perspective -- a situation not unlike the ending of Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT. And in "Body Art," a male gynecologist strikes up a friendship with a homeless art student who is creating Christmas decorations for his hospital. But what begins as an artistic debate gradually begins to invade real life, eventually taking a physical form that leaves both of them changed.
These are five varied stories that will amuse, challenge, move, and chill their readers by turns, leaving them above all with a sense of wonder at the mysterious human power of telling stories -- especially when the voice is that of such a master as A. S. Byatt.