The Little Black Book of Stories

by A.S. Byatt
ISBN: 0701173246

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A Review of: The Little Black Book of Stories
by Heather Birrell

Woods-their shadows, beauty, unfathomability and power to absorb and transform the unsuspecting traveler-also figure in Byatt's fifth collection, Little Black Book of Stories, although in a much more pointedly allegorical fashion. Byatt is a writer who understands that the surreal, raw underpinnings of the fairy tale do not exist outside the realms of "true life"; they are, in fact, the very stuff of it. As Penny, in the collection's opener, "The Thing in the Forest", remarks, "I think there are things that are real-more real than we are-but mostly we don't cross their paths, or they don't cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours." More Agent Mulder than Booker Prize Winner? Possibly. This quintet of stories is replete with the paranormal: doppelgangers, ghosts, monsters and odd transmogrifications-they all rear their ugly, unsettling heads. But what makes Byatt's take on these "supernatural" phenomena compelling is the way she yokes them so completely to our very nature as human beings. In other words, they exist because we exist; the suspension of disbelief is a moot point. When Primrose, Penny's friend and fellow witness to the monster of the title, recalls a World War II childhood-"She told herself stories at night about a girl-woman, an enchantress in a fairy wood, loved and protected by stuffed creatures, as the house in the blitz was banked in by inadequate sandbags."-we understand that she has only, and necessarily, cast the spells she requires in order to survive.
Byatt closes the collection with another story rooted in London, in the Second World War, "The Pink Ribbon". In this heartrending tale, James-who is caring, with equal measures of compassion and despair, for his elderly, demented wife, "Maddy Mad Mado"-answers the door to a young, vibrant woman, a woman he later realizes to be Mado's "fetch", a symbol of all she once was, and someone James "barely remembered and could not mourn." Like the opening story, the characters in "The Pink Ribbon" have been lacerated by the wreckage of the past, by war-time leave-takings and loneliness. These are losses, Byatt seems to be saying, that can only be expressed in fairy tale extremes and archetypes.
"The Stone Woman", perhaps the most disturbing of the stories offered, details a woman's gradual transformation from flesh to stone in language made lyrical by its geological specificity. Although I found the prose here exquisite, the endless cataloguing of stony change sometimes made for a claustrophobic narrative space, and I hankered for a happy ending that never quite, um, crystallized. Fortunately, "Body Art", wherein a fierce, pierced installation artist falls into the arms of an unsuspecting doctor (a doctor whose respect for the sanctity of life and residue of religion eventually run smack up against the artist's damaged body and complicated will) provides more joyful closure. In this story, an almost impossible stew of characters melt and finally merge into an undeniably hopeful flavour. It is a fairy tale finale tempered only by its grounding in "the melodramatic way of real lives."
Similarly, in the spoofy (and ultimately spooky) "Raw Materials", a creative writing teacher-the well-intentioned and ill-equipped Jack Smollett-instructs his students not to "invent melodrama for the sake of it," and is later paralyzed in the face of an event that seems torn from the pages of the most torrid tabloid. Here then is one of the many revelations (each more thrilling and gratifying than any X-file) that spring from the pages of Byatt's Little Black Book: life is not, in itself, art; yet art also cannot hide from the alternately uplifting and devastating soap opera that is "real" life.

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