Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

A.S. Byatt
Completed 1/20/2022, Reviewed 1/20/2022
3 stars

This book contains four short stories and the titular novella.  They are all fairy tales.  The short stories are more or less traditional, the Djinn story has a modern setting.  I liked a couple of the short stories but felt the others were meh.  For the most part, the prose is terrific, which I’ve come to expect after reading (many years ago) her Booker Prize winning “Possession” and the short “Matisse Stories”.  Some of the stories, though, just didn’t work.  This book won the 1998 Mythopoeic Award.

“The Glass Coffin” is sort of a traditional fairy tale.  It features a traveling tailor looking for work.  He comes across a man in the woods who offers him one of three items.  The item he chooses, a glass key, sets the tailor on an adventure which features a sleeping woman in glass coffin.  It’s not simply Sleeping Beauty, but a little more complex.  I liked this story.

“Gode’s Story” follows a sailor who is obsessed with a miller’s daughter.  He offers to marry her after he returns from his next voyage.  When he returns, she refuses because she hears a little thing dancing.  She continues to refuse him and the story escalates to a tragic ending.  While well written, I didn’t like it, not because it was too dark, but because we never find out the why of the little thing dancing.

I liked “The Eldest Princess”.  It was sort of a variation on Red Riding Hood, as well as other woods stories.  The eldest princess goes into the woods to find something, but she realizes that she will fail, as will her younger sister, leaving the youngest sister to accomplish the task.  She decides to take matters into her own hands and is rewarded in the end.

“Dragon’s Breath” was kind of strange.  It was about a quiet town living beneath a non-volcanic mountain that suddenly starts oozing lava.  However, it looks like there are six giant worms coming down the mountain, devouring everything with fire.  Three siblings who feel they never have excitement in their lives finally get some.

“The Djinn…” is the modern tale.  It’s about a renowned woman who studies the art of storytelling.  She goes to a conference in Istanbul where she comes across a type of bottle known as the Nightingale’s Eye.  Even though it may be a fake, she buys it, and low and behold a djinn appears when she washes it.  Somehow she is not surprised and takes her time trying to make intelligent wishes.  

The basic premise of this story is good.  My biggest problem with it is that it was as academic as the main character.  We hear a large part of her presentation on a Chaucer story, as well as that of one of her colleagues.  We also hear her keynote speech at a different conference.  It becomes meta as these speeches analyze fairy tales.  Her relationship with the Djinn reflects some of the lessons learned by these analyses.

I also wasn’t fond of the writing style of this story.  It felt muddled and over-descriptive with lots of repetition of words.  I got that this was what was in her head, her way of thinking and processing, but I found it really annoying and sometimes difficult to follow. 

I give the book as a whole three stars out of five.  All the stories captured the essence of fairy tales.  It’s just the execution of a few was not pleasant.  “Djinn” could have been a five-star story if it weren’t for this.  Instead, it was just meh.

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