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Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Little Black Book of Stories’ brilliant, bleak

May 23, 2004

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Dame A(ntonia) S(usan) Byatt has proven to be one of England's most formidable writers of late.

Although mainly known in the fantasy genre, Byatt won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1990 for "Possession," which was part romance, part literary thriller. But as her fame grew, Byatt began to generate criticism for being verbose. Her latest work, "Little Black Book of Stories," is perhaps an answer to these critiques. Every word in the five stories is concise and well-chosen, with far-reaching themes and settings.

The stories in "Little Black Book" depend on psychology and the suspension of disbelief. Most of the tales are somewhat fantastic. In one, young girls see a monster in a forest; in another a woman slowly turns to stone.

As such, this collection reads like a book of grown-up ghost stories.

The first story, "The Thing in the Forest," involves two young girls who are sent away from their homes due to the threat of war. While exploring a forest on their first day together, Penny and Primrose encounter a monster "the color of flayed flesh, pitted with wormholes, and its expression was neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery." Although the girls escape physically unharmed, the encounter with the monster forever shapes their lives. More than just a creepy ghost story, "The Thing in the Forest" might also be seen as an allegory for the lasting effects of war.

This story is in complete contrast with "Raw Material," where a literary has-been finds unexpected talent in his creative writing students. Jack Smollet is an unsympathetic character, unhappy and always finding fault in others.

"They couldn't write, their inventions were crude, and he couldn't find a way to perform the necessary operation to spin the muddy straw into silk, or turn the raw bleeding chunks into a savory dish."

But while not exactly likeable, Jack -- as well as all the characters in "Little Black Book" -- serves as a subject to be studied from afar.

The characters are all melancholy, if not completely depressed. The gothic feel that pervades the collection might be enough to dissuade a light-hearted reader. And it is certainly true that the themes are tragic and sorrowful, and the mood dark. However, all of the stories have a rather positive ending. For instance, Byatt takes a woman turning to stone and makes it almost natural, as if Ines is simply returning to her roots.

The subject matter alone makes most of the stories good entertainment. But there is much more to this collection than meets the eye. Like Byatt's other works, "Little Black Book" is best read with an encyclopedia in hand.

In "A Stone Woman," Byatt details Icelandic myths and geological formations.

In "Body Art," various painters play a key role in the story's interpretation. But Byatt steers clear of spelling out any allegories, instead choosing to use sparse prose and little dialogue. For these reasons, "Little Black Book" is truly a book lover's book.

Like all good writers, Byatt forces readers to rely on their imaginations rather than providing minute details. She trusts that her audience is intelligent and astute, and she knows how to produce material that will entertain as well as enlighten. "Little Black Book" is by far Byatt's best, most insightful work for any enthusiastic reader.

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