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A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories

A.S. Byatt writes fairy tales for adults: fables teeming with ghosts, monsters, stone women, and ordinary people whose complacent worlds are shattered by a glimmer of the fantastic. Both her short stories and novels (including the Booker Prize winner-turned-schlocky Hollywood romance Possession) are formidable investigations of life, death, and desire, full of irony and excess. Byatt once again displays her skill with a new collection, Little Black Book of Stories, a volume of tales previously published in magazines and "best short story" volumes.

Little Black Book is suffused with quotidian detail and elegance. Byatt displays a composure in tone that's quintessentially English. With innocent gentility, she conjures up sinister pictures of fossilized fetuses and rosy-cheeked toddlers eaten by monsters, offset by her talent for distilling studious plots into few pages. Full of subtle creepiness, these are stories that evoke the extraordinary without going over the top.

In the first story, "The Thing in the Forest," Byatt serves up a fairy tale gone awry. The two young protagonists, Penny and Primrose, are dispatched to the countryside during the World War II blitz in London. As they play together in a distant wood, the horrors of folk history and wartime disorientation assume form in a putrid monster that wends slimily along a forest path. The women are permanently damaged by this image and return to confront the monster decades later, only to find themselves stuck in an existential quagmire that has them questioning the very basis of their realities. Death and destruction occur in the awnings.

Byatt's stories are, oftentimes, about nostalgia informed by trauma. "The Thing in the Forest" hauntingly juxtaposes childhood reminiscence against post-war nihilism. "The Pink Ribbon" is about a man's encounter with the literal ghost of his mentally ill wife's former self. "The Stone Woman" languorously illustrates a woman's metamorphosis from flesh to stone after her mother's death; she finds a kindred spirit in an Icelandic stonecutter who regales her with the mythology of his ancient land. This is the most unusual tale in the collection, overflowing with exquisite specificity and detached grace. The woman, Ines, coolly observes her transformation's "beginnings in the mirror one morning, brushing her hair-a necklace of veiled swellings above her collar-bone which broke slowly through the skin like eyes from closed lids, and became opal-fire opal, black opal, geyserite and hydrophane, full of watery light..."

"The Stone Woman" charts a cryptic path back to pristine nature, to a time when trolls roved the earth and myth was reality. Part of the reason Byatt is so preoccupied with nostalgia is that, for her, it implies the disintegration of reality as we know it, which is the reason her tales are often classified as "fantasies." But anchoring a story like "The Stone Woman" in so much physical description renders it with a substance that mere fantasy would surely lack.

The manner in which Byatt unspools both the mundane and the extraordinary is disorienting and hardly romantic; with the transformation of reality, her characters pay a heavy price. Because all her characters, though unextraordinary, undergo some irreversible trauma, the stories are predictably filled with the macabre: anemic artists who construct sculptures from dead babies and body parts ("Body Art") and subdued old women who lead double lives full of torment and squalor ("Raw Material").

"Raw Material" presents Byatt at her wittiest and most sadistic. In a wry analysis of "writing as therapy," an erstwhile author named Jack Smollett teaches a creative writing class full of mediocre scribes who write bad, thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. In his class, "Cliché spread like a stain across the written world, and he didn't know a technique for expunging it." However, Jack finds inspiration in his new student, an old woman who writes gorgeously nuanced accounts of her past, with unusual topics like "How We Used to Black-Lead Stoves" and "Wash Day." The story's unexpected ending is gruesome and full of cruel irony, and the woman's demise inspires Jack's talentless students. "They were vindicated. Miss Fox belonged after all in the normal world of their writings…torture and shock-horror. They would write what they knew, what had happened to Cicely Fox, and it would be most satisfactorily therapeutic." It's an intriguing satire on the ramifications of bad art imitating life.

Little Black Book of Stories is delightfully shivery, properly un-nice. A.S. Byatt's most vitriolic critics assail her for being too cold and cerebral, occupied with things rather than feelings. But just as the old writer Miss Fox in "Raw Material" has a knack for enlivening the banal with mystery, Byatt does the same. Byatt is a sensual writer; her narrative is full of linguistic seductions. The absence of sentimentality in her writing and the keen concentration on detail are her greatest strengths. In her hands, no topic is too unwieldy.

In many ways, Byatt's newest is an homage to all the beginnings paradoxically inherent in ends. For instance, "The Thing in the Forest" rotates through various styles: once-upon-a-time fairy tale, wartime recollection, horror story, psychological thriller-only to loop back to the first sentence of the tale: "There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in the forest," suggesting an inevitability of return to the traumas that inform our most intimate experiences.

Little Black Book of Stories
by A.S. Byatt
Knopf; ISBN 1400041775
Hardcover: 256 pages (April 2004)