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A Magical Short Story Sunday (The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye)

June 1, 2008

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.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2008 8:26 pm

    I’ve never read Byatt. What’s your favorite Byatt work, Eva? Maybe I should give her a try.

  2. June 2, 2008 12:42 am

    I love Byatt especially Possession, I have her Little Black Book of Short Stories which I am gradually making my way through and really enjoying

  3. adevotedreader permalink
    June 2, 2008 3:44 am

    I’ve just finished The Matisse stories by Byatt, which were as good as I’ve come to expect! I’ve enjoyed many of her short stories but not this collection yet, so I look forward to reading it.

  4. June 2, 2008 3:45 am

    Oh Eva…you’re killing me! I feel like this just has to go on the must-read list. I swear I need to live to be 2,649!

  5. June 2, 2008 5:19 am

    I love this book so much. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is my favourite of the short stories too…it’s one of my favourite short stories ever! And the novella was just stunning. I can barely remember Dragon’s Breath, which perhaps says something. I’m glad you’re submitting this post for the Carnival, and thanks for spreading the word about it!

  6. June 2, 2008 5:21 am

    Chartroose, it’s difficult to pick a favourite with her! But I think you might want to start with “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (the actual novella), because you’ll immediately realise if you like her way of mixing academia with fiction. If you do, definitely go read Possession! It’s super-romantic, and the most famous book of hers. If you don’t, try The Virgin in the Garden: I did a short review of it last year. It’s the most ordinary, down-to-earth Byatt I’ve read. Those are both novels. If you’re in the mood for some high Gothic stuff, try Little Black Book of Stories; that was my first Byatt, and it blew me away. :) The Matisse Stories was a shorter collection that I also enjoyed, but not as much as Little Black Book or Djinn. And The Biographer’s Tale, another novel, was the most obscure of her books that I’ve read. So I’d build up to that one. Was that enough of an answer? lol

    Katrina, I love both of those! My favourite story from Little Black Book “The Thing in the Forest,” but I loved them all. :)

    A Devoted Reader, glad to see another Byatt fan! FYI, your blog isn’t linking in your name.

    Debi, at least this one’s short! But I sympathise with you; it’s insane how many good books there are out there.

    Nymeth, I’m glad we agree. :) And as soon as I found out your carnival theme, I knew I’d have to read this one in time! “Dragon’s Breath” was about a village who had to hide in the forest when these weird giant worms crawled down from the mountains and destroyed everything in their path. It just wasn’t at the same level as the rest of the collection, but that’s ok. It was short!

  7. June 2, 2008 6:02 am

    Oh I just adored Possession, so I’m glad to see you enjoyed the two stories from it. I have been meaning to read more by Byatt ever since I read P. the first time, oh, probably 5 years or more ago! And I haven’t done it yet, just read Possession two more times!

    I’ve circled this one several times and your review makes my desire to read it stronger. I may just have to pick it up soon. Byatt is just sooo good!

  8. June 2, 2008 11:11 am

    Yes, I love it when Byatt does her fairy story-influenced fiction. Always wondered how she got away with not being called a “fantasy” writer at all.

    I did like that story collection although I can’t remember now which one was a favourite — I loved the two from “Possession”, certainly. I did a post on “Glass Coffin”. Here’s my favourite passage from the lot.

    Have you remarked, where a fast-flowing stream comes to a little fall, how the racing water becomes glassy smooth and under it the long fine threads of the water-weed are drawn along its still-seeming race, trembling a little, but stretched out in the flow? So under the surface of the thick glass lay a mass of long gold threads, filling in the whole cavity of the box with their turns and tumbles, so that at first the little tailor thought he had come upon a box full of spun gold, to make cloth of gold. But then between the fronds he saw a face, the most beautiful face he could have dreamed of or imagined, a still white face, with long gold lashes on pale cheeks, and a perfect pale mouth. Her gold hair lay round her like a mantle, but where its strands crossed her face they stirred a little with her breathing, so that the tailor knew she was alive.

  9. June 2, 2008 12:29 pm

    Glad you liked this one; I liked The Eldest Princess best. I found Djinn to be a little long — I think I just like Byatt best in really short doses. :)

  10. June 2, 2008 2:18 pm

    I’m going to add this one to my wish list. I’ve not read Byatt in many years, but I loved Possession. Read it two or three times.

    I’ve just pledged to do a short story every Sunday. This must be where I go the idea. ;-)

  11. June 2, 2008 5:26 pm

    Heather, I adored Possession too! I really need to reread it. :)

    Imani, ohhh-I love that passage! And your post was very neat; I liked the comparisons you drew. Byatt seems entranced by glass, doesn’t she?

    CB, yay! And I know Danielle does Short Story Sundays too (and more regularly than me, lol). I think I started doing it during the RIP II challenge, and decided to keep on doing it. :D

  12. June 2, 2008 5:39 pm

    Melissa, I can totally see how someone would prefer little bits of Byatt. :) I can’t get enough of her, though!

  13. June 2, 2008 6:05 pm

    Hmmm, I just gave Possession a longing glance, earlier this evening. It’s going to have to wait, but now you’re killing me. Quit that! :)

  14. June 3, 2008 5:50 am

    If you like to listen to audio books, Possession is a lovely one to listen to. The reader is fantastic. ;)

  15. June 3, 2008 12:04 pm

    I was just contemplating reading this collection. I thought I might be able to squeeze it in for Carl’s challenge, which I’ve sort of fizzled on. Glad to hear you liked nearly all the stories!

  16. dfrucci permalink
    June 3, 2008 12:16 pm

    Looks extremely interesting. You have all these books on your blog that look awesome. I’m gonna be broke when I’m done buying all these cool books! lol

  17. June 3, 2008 5:04 pm

    When I first read Possession I liked the story of The Glass Coffin so much I read it to my daughter. I was surprised when I read it again in The Djinn. That’s my kind of fairy tale.

    Byatt is one of those authors that I kind of like but I think we miss each other in passing. I keep reading her stuff because it is interesting but I don’t love it like most people.

  18. June 3, 2008 5:26 pm

    Nancy, lol. I give books longing glances too!

    Heather, thanks for the recommendation! My library has it for download, so once I’m through my current audiobooks, I’ll grab it.

    Danielle, I’ve fizzled on Carl’s challenge too; I’ve only done two reviews, and I need to read two more books. We’ll see if I make it!

    DF, that’s what the public library is for. ;)

    Petunia, that’s interesting-most readers seem to love or hate Byatt. At least you keep giving her chances. :)

  19. June 4, 2008 9:41 am

    When I was looking at this article I saw the link to the Neil Gaiman journal which I’ve been looking at this week especially his short stories, some of which are good. Through that I saw a link to The Endicott Studio which has got loads of information on fairytales and myths, plus some shortstories, gorgeous pictures and adorable e-cards which I thought you may be interested in (if you haven’t already discovered it)

  20. June 15, 2008 12:53 pm

    This one looks good.

  21. June 15, 2008 9:04 pm

    I have several Byatt books mentioned here (in the comments) on my shelf, but have to be honest and say they’re all unread by me. This is shameful, as I know she’s widely lauded. It seems this Bookworms Carnival thing is sending my TBR pile to the ceiling!

  22. June 15, 2008 9:55 pm

    Hi Eva! I bought this book right after I read Possession years and years ago (gee, that sounds like a long time but yes. I think I read Possession the year it won Booker and I’ve reread it at least five times already).

    Thing is, sadly, I never got around to actually reading this. Because everytime I pick up The Glass Coffin I end up longing for Possession and start rereading passages on that instead! Hahaha!

    So it’s high time I finish this one already! Maybe I should hide my copy of Possession first :)

  23. June 17, 2008 11:36 am

    I’ve never read any Byatt books – never even heard of the author until now – this carnival is certainly opening my eyes to a world of exciting books – and I too need to live to be 3076 to read them all!

  24. June 17, 2008 2:34 pm

    I’ve never read any Byatt books either and I think I’m missing out. Thank you for this post! I would still be in the dark had I not read it.

  25. bookroomreviews permalink
    June 17, 2008 7:28 pm

    I have a couple of her books but haven’t picked them up yet, your post has inspired me to move them up the pile:)

  26. June 19, 2008 4:46 pm

    Oh, good, a short story collection. I have so many books from the Carnival on my list now, I don’t know how I’ll get to them: but I can handle a short story now….And my library has it in, which is more than can be said of any of the others.

    Thanks for the review. I look forward to reading the “Djinn”.


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