A.S. Byatt: Little Black Book Of Stories

A.S. Byatt: Little Black Book Of Stories

The five stories in A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book Of Stories are metaphorical, but not insistently so. When a person slowly petrifies in "A Stone Woman," her condition could be read as a symbolic reaction to her mother's recent death, or just an excuse for Byatt to wax rhapsodic about how it feels for a rock to rub against another rock. Given that about two-thirds of "A Stone Woman" is given over to Byatt's intoxicating descriptions of minerals sprouting across her heroine's body, the pleasure of the prose may well be as important as its meaning.

Throughout Little Black Book Of Stories, Byatt shuffles the fantastical and the grotesque. In "Raw Material," a small-town creative-writing instructor finally gets a student who writes something other than lackluster, blood- and tear-stained melodramas, but his praise draws violent resentment from her classmates. In "The Pink Ribbon," an old man receives regular visits from the younger version of his Alzheimer's-stricken wife. "Body Art" gives living form to an aesthetic debate between a chilly gynecologist and a thin-skinned vegetarian art student when the two make a baby. And, in "The Thing In The Forest," two women who haven't seen each other since they were refugees as children return to the halfway house where they first met, and where they may have once seen an inconceivable beast.

The ghosts and gore in Little Black Book Of Stories stand in for the characters' emotional damage, some of which is traceable to WWII. The subjects of "The Pink Ribbon" and "The Thing In The Forest" conjure demons out of their memories of dead parents, hurt friends, and choices made. But Byatt never implies that what they're experiencing exists only in their heads. These characters are, in some ways, relishing the physical manifestations of their anxiety, as Byatt clearly enjoys facing a nation's painful legacy head-on.

Byatt sketches her characters with an extremely British sense of certainty and dichotomy, sometimes to a fault. Like a lot of her countrymen in the dramatic and literary arts, Byatt divides the classes a little too neatly, giving her upper crust a deep sensitivity and crippling reserve, and her working classes a streak of noble vulgarity. But again, who her characters are and the reasons for what's happening to them aren't any more important than how she depicts them. In "Raw Material," her lengthy excerpts from the star pupil's writing&mostly descriptive lists of turn-of-the-century chores—affirm her own love of words, and how they can transform the mundane.

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