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Sunday, May 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Michael Upchurch
"Life runs in very narrow stereotyped channels, until it is interrupted by accidents or visions."
That sentence, dropped not so casually into the middle of A.S. Byatt's fine new story collection, serves virtually as the book's leitmotif, around which Byatt weaves five taut and tasty (not to mention spooky) narrative variations.
Each of the tales in "Little Black Book of Stories" starts out with an ordinary or, at least, earthbound premise. Two little girls are evacuated from London to the countryside during World War II. An aging daughter faces life alone after the death of her mother, who was also her best friend. An elderly man whose wife is stricken with Alzheimer's gives shelter to a young woman who turns up on his doorstep in the middle of the night.
All well within the realm of possibility but in the next few pages things start taking strange turns. The little girls see something out of this world in the woods. The lonely daughter starts turning, literally, into stone. And that young woman knows much more about her elderly host than she should.
The Booker Prize-winning author ("Possession") has pulled off this kind of thing before in her short fiction. But there's a cleanliness of line here, a seamlessness in the transitions from ordinary to extraordinary, that signals a new level of accomplishment for Byatt. There are also some savagely humorous twists that may take your breath away.
Even the two stories that have more to do with "accidents" than "visions" deliver some startling moves. In "Body Art," a detached but kindly doctor ("I'm kind because I'm detached") takes a half-fatherly interest in a young artist in need of work, shelter and someone to tell her to eat right. When he wangles her a part-time job cataloging his hospital's long-neglected collection of antique medical instruments and curiosity-filled specimen jars, the story starts slipping from daylight normality toward shadowy taboo.
In the funniest story, "Raw Material," Byatt depicts a creative-writing class where all the students turn in slapdash horror stories ("A tale of unreported, persistent child abuse and Satanic sacrifice ... A tale of a cheating husband hacked down by his vengeful wife with an axe") except for octogenarian Cicely Fox, who comes up with an exquisitely sly and precise account of "How we used to black-lead our stoves."
For the class instructor, Cicely is both a revelation and enigma. What inspires her to write so well? What makes her tick?
"I expect the motive doesn't matter," she says vaguely. "One has to do one's best."
The shocker ending to this initially comical tale raises questions as to which vision of life more accurately reflects our reality: the humdrum or the gothic?
"A Stone Woman," about that gal whose flesh is turning to "volcanic glass and semi-precious stones," may be the best story here, thanks to its matter-of-fact tone and fullness of detail. (Byatt covers just about all the thoughts one might reasonably have if one were turning into a rock.)
But each of these five stories springs illuminating, mind-bending surprises on the reader, as Byatt draws on familiar experience and fantastical possibility to plumb human dreams and foibles in ways that feel wily, subversive and new.
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