A Magical Short Story Sunday (The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye)
Look! It’s Sunday and I’ve read a short story collection! This week, I read A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which has four short stories and the title novella, as part of the Mythopoeic Challenge. I’m a big fan of Byatt, and this is the third short story collection of hers I’ve read, so I was prepared for some top-notch writing. The short stories are written in a traditional, fairy tale style, and I loved three of the four.
If you’ve read Possession, you’ve already encountered the first two stories: “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story”. “The Glass Coffin” is a quest story, with a tailor setting off in search of work, but when he can’t find that he settles for adventure. It hits the perfect fairy tale note! “Gode’s Story” has more of a macabre, ghost feel to it; Gode is a sailor who falls in love with a village girl. I don’t want to say much more, but it’s rather as if Edgar Allen Poe decided to write a fairy tale. And read the opening line:
There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes-but those were very bright-and the stregnth the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
How can you not want to know what happens next?
Next comes my favourite of the short stories: “The Story of the Eldest Princess”. It begins like a normal fairy tale:
Once upon a time, in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains, between the forest and the desert, there lived a King and Queen with three daughters.
Eventually, the eldest daughter is sent on a quest for the good of her kingdom. But that’s when things get interesting; because the eldest princess is a great reader. And since she’s read fairy tales, she knows that as the eldest, she’s doomed to fail. So, she begins to wonder, can she change that fate? She steps off the road of her quest, and into a dark forest with only animal companions. Throughout the story, she uses what she’s learned from reading to help decide what to do. For example,
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.
It’s just wonderful to watch her make her own way! And, I absolutely loved this line:
“I always believe stories whilst they are being told,” said the Cockroach.
For isn’t it true?
I’m going to skip over the so-so story, “Dragon’s Breath,” and jump right into my favourite part of the book: “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” Because as wonderful as the first three stories were, this novella is something far beyond that. It’s perfect in every single way. Unlike the stories, this one is set in our everyday world, although you don’t realise it at first. Here’s the opening, because it’s too good not to share with you:
Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled though the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas, and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
The main character is an academic, a storyteller if you will, which if you’ve read Byatt you know isn’t unusual. She goes to Ankara for a conference, and the first part of the novella includes two stories, one from Chaucer and one from the Arabian Nights told at the conference. Then one of her Turkish colleagues and friends takes her sightseeing, and there are even more stories. Finally, she ends up going shopping, and buys a beautiful little glass bottle.
It was a flask with a high neck, that fitted comfortably into th epalms of her hands, and had a glass stopper like a miniature dome. The whole was dark, with a regular whirling pattern of white stripes moving round it.
I’m sure you can guess what happens next! Let me just say, there are even more stories to be told, and magic to be woven, and the whole thing is so wonderful that just writing this review makes me want to read it all over again. The characters all seem real, and it makes the modern world seem like such a fairy-tale place I’m sure you’ll look at everything a bit differently after reading it. This is Byatt at her absolute finest, and if you have any love of stories, if you sometimes wish you could be a small child again so as to experience fairy tales all over again, you should go read this right now. It’s 178 pages long, which is good because once I started I couldn’t put it down and I bet you’ll feel the same way. Now go read it!
(P.S.: I decided to read this now and review it so I’d have something to submit for Nymeth’s Book Carnival theme, which is fairy tales. You can read all the guidelines here, and I hope you’ll find or write a post too!)
Favourite Passages (“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”)
She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent unched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor madiens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholarship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better. Two or three times a year she flew to strange cities, to China, Mexico and Japan, to Transylvania, Bogata and the South Seas, where narratalogists gathered like starlings, parliaments of wise fowls, telling stories about stories.
Gillian collected glass paperwights: she liked glass in general, for its paradoxical nature, translucent as water, heavy as stone, invisible as air, solid as earth. Blown with human breath in a furnace of fire. As a child she had loved to read of glass balls containing castles and snowstorms, though in reality she had always found these disappointing and had transferred her magical attachment to the weights in which coloured forms and carpets of geometric flowers shone perpetually and could be made to expand and contract as the sphere of glass turned in her fingers like light.