Friday, August 26, 2011

Little Black Book of Stories (AS Byatt)

It's been years since I last read any of AS Byatt's works, so when a friend handed me Little Black Book of Stories I immediately jumped at the opportunity. My friend claims that the book is actually mine -- something I had lent her many many years ago (probably close to a decade) -- but it had completely slipped my mind. Upon re-reading, only two of the five stories in this collection came back to me; the rest all felt deliciously brand new.

'The Thing in the Forest' is one of those familiar ones, the tale of two girls who meet as evacuees in World War II Britain. During one of their respites, they wander into a nearby forest and briefly witness a strange and terrifying creature that will stay with them through adulthood. Whether the creature is real or imagined, it remains a strong metaphor for the horrors of war, changing the girls' lives even when they choose to go on different paths.

One thing worth noting is that as they travel through the countryside, Primrose and Penny note that hey pass by 'tiny stations whose names have been blacked out' and feel that 'the erasure was because of them, because they were not meant to know where they were going or, like Hansel and Gretel, to find the way back (p6)'. Though this sentiment is voiced in that first story, I feel that it is a common thread throughout the rest of the book. The tales seem to end right after their respective climaxes, leaving the characters in the middle of the tension, often after a pivotal point or decision. Each time I encounter it, I think back on those blacked-out signs, giving the characters no choice but to travel down the paths on which they have found themselves.

My words feel woefully inadequate when trying to capture the essence of Little Black Book of Stories. For such a spartan title, the collection itself is lush with images and descriptions. Consider the other stories: A doctor who encourages a young artist to explore her craft ends up curtailing her freedom in more ways than one ('Body Art'). A woman finds herself slowly turning into stone and journeys to a far corner of the world ('A Stone Woman'). A writer finds a rare tranquil voice among his class of tragedy-crazed students ('Raw Material'). A man encounters the ghost of his living wife ('A Pink Ribbon'). Each tale is populated with Ms Byatt's rich observations ('a necklace of veiled swellings above her collar-bone which broke slowly through the skin like eyes from closed lids, and became opal (p140)' and dark undertones ('the final two arms were crocheting something in an immense tangle of crimson plastic cords (p104)'. Her images pile themselves upon each other in wonderful layers.

I also felt that the stories showed the different ways that a woman's power can be suppressed by history, society, and circumstance. Ms Byatt features a gamut of female characters at various points of their lives and yet they still struggle to free themselves from their oppressors. I suppose this is why the last story, although not my favorite, drives home one of the strongest ideas of the collection (at least, personally): the spirit walking freely. Does it make me, a female reader, feel triumphant in the end? With all the darkness of the book, I'm still not sure. Despite this, I'm glad I re-read Little Black Book of Stories; it would have been such a shame if I had truly forgotten all the painfully chaotic elegance that this book has.

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