A Dark-adapted eye
With Little Black Book of Stories, A.S. Byatt focuses on the supernatural entwined in the everyday
Little Black Book of Stories
By A. S. Byatt
Knopf, 240 pp., $21
The Gothic has always been a discernible element in A. S. Byatt's fiction, lending a macabre tone of unease and suspense to books otherwise grounded in encyclopedic amounts of information. It has often rescued her work from the ponderous antiquarianism she is fond of, such as the tedious stretches of contrived Victoriana in ''Possession," and has worked best when it has had to struggle against the confines of the short story.
''Little Black Book of Stories" demonstrates this perfectly, with five stories that derive their effect from the way Byatt's Gothic touch transforms commonplace English settings and characters into unsettling zones of loss and fear. The opening story, ''The Thing in the Forest," establishes the tone, with its use of a wartime background and a country manor. Penny and Primrose are two young girls who have been sent away from London just before the blitz. Opposed in temperament and appearance, they nevertheless strike up a friendship that culminates in a venture into the forest neighboring the manor. They are urban children who are excited and nervous to be entering a forest, but what awaits them there is a strange creature that will define the trajectory of their lives and draw them back to the forest long after the war is over.
What is striking about this story, and what will continue to be the dominant theme of the collection, is the manner in which a mythical, supernatural past intrudes into the modern-day world. ''In stories, people make marks on tree-trunks, or unroll a thread, or leave a trail of white pebbles -- to find their way back," Penny says before entering the forest. But there is more than one kind of going back, as she finds out, and many of the stories are variations on the theme of returning to the disturbing realms of the pre-modern. The elderly man looking after his demented wife in ''The Pink Ribbon" finds himself visited at night by a young woman who turns out to be the Dido of his classical reading, while in ''A Stone Woman," a researcher traumatized by the death of her mother turns, literally, into a woman of stone. She looks for a place that can accommodate her metamorphosing self, even visiting a rundown graveyard, but she is unable to find release until she goes to Iceland, full of volcanoes, trolls, and striding stone women.
Such supernaturalism may not be to everybody's taste, but it is marvelous -- up to a point. If the turns taken by the narrative are fantastic, Byatt's choice of setting (the country manor, a hospital, a middle-class home) emphasizes the solidity of the world her stories begin from. This is, in part, a matter of a writer using the environment she knows best, but it also ensures that we do not psychoanalyze the characters. Even when they are distraught, as they frequently are, we have no grounds for assuming that the stone woman's transformation or the appearance of the thing in the forest is entirely a product of the unconscious or a case of the return of the repressed.
Byatt's prose too works toward the same intent, with its unperturbed gravitas and hunger for information. Virtually every story gives us some specialized knowledge; ''A Stone Woman" contains a small geology lesson, while ''Raw Material," revolving around a set of students taking creative writing in an English village, gives us a star pupil's essays on how domestic chores were carried out before the advent of modern machines. There is a quintessentially English empiricism in Byatt's passion for such arcana, and to some degree they provide a counterweight to the fantastic elements in the narrative.
At the same time, these micro-essays share the nostalgia of her Gothic mode. Stones, rocks, medieval worms, coal stoves, Icelandic folklore, classical mythology -- all of these move us away from contemporary, post-industrial English society into worlds that operate according to a different set of rules. It is an approach to the past that gives the stories their distinctive quality, and it is also what often makes them limited. For a writer so interested in the relationship between past and present, Byatt often displays a curious indifference to the idea of history. There is no logic beyond the macabre to connect the medieval thing in the forest with wartime England. For all her precise period details, Byatt's wartime England is a shadowy era, limited to a few interesting descriptions of customs and social practices.
When she chooses to imbue her work with a past that is historical as well as magical, the results are impressive. ''Body Art" contains all the usual elements of a Byatt story -- a disturbed central character, a commonplace setting, and the usual chunk of specialized information -- but it has an impact that far exceeds those of the other stories.
Set in a soulless modern hospital, it sketches out a triangle formed by a male doctor, a starving artist, and an art consultant, gathering its momentum from the characters and the strange place in which their lives have intersected. On the surface a nondescript charity hospital founded by a colonial surgeon who was also a speculator in the spice trade, St. Pantaleon's is remarkable because of the ''Collection" -- an assortment of ''medical instruments and curiosities" bequeathed to the hospital by its founder. Of course, Byatt gives us a detailed catalog of the Collection, which turns out to be a horror chamber, a graphic history of modern medicine, and the source of pilfered raw material for the starving artist. But what impresses one here is not so much Byatt's cleverness or meticulous research, but the absence of strain in inserting such a collection into a London charity hospital, and in the correspondences Byatt finds between art, the history of surgery, religion, and the female body. If it is the best story in the collection, this is because ''Body Art" reveals effortlessly that science is also a version of magic, and that the modernity we live in may be the most disturbing of all Gothic narratives.
Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novel ''The Point of Return."