- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

British author A.S. Byatt, rather coyly, has called her latest collection of short fiction “Little Black Book of Stories.” The title tantalizingly suggests a concoction that is dark and compact, and the five tales presented here are just that and then some.

Within these pages live thunderous domestic reckonings, apocalyptic reversals, arboreal fairies, ghostly visitors, taunting echoes of ancient wisdom, mundane classroom squabbles and cameo appearances by some of the 21st century’s most ridiculous cultural phenomena — Teletubbies and body piercings, to name just two. But even the latter are shown to have dimension, facets that reflect the terrifying and the beautiful. This little book is one that has heft, substance beyond measure.

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Miss Byatt, the Booker Prize-winning author of “Possession,” knows that she has mastered the art of balancing everyday life with learnedness, predictability with surprise. And in reading each of the stories here one is carried along on a heady ride, fully aware that there are few people writing in English today who command the same power or prowess.

“The Thing in the Forest,” the first story in the book, concerns two little girls, Penny and Primrose, children from different families who are living in England during the darkest days of World War II. Along with many other children, they are sent from the city to the countryside to escape the German bombs.

However, one day, the girls decide to break loose from the others. They wander off into a forest where they encounter, or think they do, a horrible creature they cannot name. The memory of this terror is still with them at their reunion many years later, still haunting and in many ways defining them.

This first story is arguably the collection’s most accessible, a fairy tale that becomes a fable about how our most helpless selves cope with isolation and dread, particularly during the bleakest times, in this case war.

Wartime plays a part again in “The Pink Ribbon,” the final story of the collection, and the themes of fear and the solace of love and memory make another, perhaps even more potent appearance. In this story, an aging war veteran tends to his elderly and infirm wife who is clearly lost to the ravages of dementia. His day-to-day coping is mitigated by what he can recall of their young lives together.

The husband is a particularly sympathetic figure and Miss Byatt’s portrait of him reveals what it takes to retain one’s humanity when chaos and destruction and madness threaten to engulf:

“What happened to him now, was that as he woke out of a nap over his book or stumbled into his bedroom … he saw visions, heard sounds … Dead Germans in the North African desert, their caps, their water cans. The old woman he and Madeleine [his wife] had pushed under the table on the worst night of the Blitz, and revived with whiskey when she seemed to be having a heart attack.

“She had one red felt slipper with a pom-pom and one bare foot. He saw her gnarled toes, he fitted Madeleine’s sheepskin slippers to the trembling feet, he smelled — for hours together — the smell of smouldering London when they went out to survey the damage. Grit in his nose, grit in his lungs, grit of the stones and explosives of cinders of flesh and bone.”

Miss Byatt returns again and again to the tension between the emotional and the elemental. It is a struggle that reoccurs throughout the collection, but nowhere more graphically than in a story called “A Stone Woman.”

In it, a woman whose mother has died simply, slowly begins to turn to stone. It is a grotesque tale, unnerving in its way and the metamorphosis contained in it requires a whopping suspension of disbelief. But in doing so, the rewards are plentiful, since this is a story that penetrates the core of grief and survival.

It also reveals Miss Byatt’s command of science and heart. Here is the stone woman speaking of her growing awareness of what is happening to her:

“But as she became mineral, and looked into the idea of minerals, she saw that there were reciprocities, both physical and figurative. There were whole ranges of rocks and stones which, like pearls, were formed from things which had once been living. Not only coal and fossils, petrified woods and biothermal limestones — oolitic and psiolitic limestones, formed round dead shells — but chalk itself which was mainly made up of micro-organisms, or cherts and flints, massive bedded forms made up of the skeletons of Radiolaria and diatoms.”

This is demanding prose, but just when it seems almost too difficult the versatile Miss Byatt switches gears and offers “Raw Material,” a playfully absorbing tale about a creative writing class. I use the term “playfully” loosely here, however, since one should never let one’s guard down, particularly in Byatt country.

The most modern tale of the collection is “Body Art,” one in which a feckless young woman with body piercings encounters the harsh realities of life and the intersection of art in that life. In the collection’s acknowledgements, Miss Byatt reveals that she consulted her daughter for her knowledge about piercings. As such, one can’t help but wonder how much of this affecting story is derived from events unusually close.

Whatever the source was that inspired or informed with this story, like all of the others in this delightful and surprising collection, Miss Byatt captures some essence of our adult preoccupations by using literary armory that includes lures we must have first encountered as children. From fairy tales to allegories, from art in and of life, from the poetry of loss and redemption, Miss Byatt reminds us why we read to live.

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