A. S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is aptly named, both in terms of its length and its disturbing subject matter. Yet the English author’s precise touch rescues her stories from morbidity.
“The Thing in the Forest” describes the experiences of two young girls, Penny and Primrose, in the woods after their evacuation from London during the Blitz of World War II. They never forget their encounter with a frightening and nearly indescribable creature, known (they learn much later) as the Loathly Worm, but come to terms with their memories in radically different ways.
Two other stories are, if anything, even more fantastic. “A Stone Woman” deals with a bereaved woman’s liberating metamorphosis as she literally turns to stone, and includes a striking evocation of the elemental landscape of Iceland. “The Pink Ribbon” hinges on a hoary superstition, although even folklorists may not foresee the twist that Byatt has in store.
“Raw Material” and “Body Art” eschew the fantastic to explore the relationship of art to life. In the former, the relationship turns out to be anything but obvious, as a creative writing teacher discovers more than he wants to know about his best pupil. In the latter story, a lonely art student creates a horrifying symbol of childbirth, only to discover—miraculously and yet prosaically—that reality is something else again.
Both realism and fantasy succeed through their attention to detail, a paradox that Byatt exploits in stories as often luminous as they are dark. Thus her stone woman is delighted to discover the mineral taste of rain, a homely fact that makes her fantastic situation all the more real.
America 191 (October 4, 2004): 17.
Booklist 100, no. 16 (April 15, 2004): 1404.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 6 (March 15, 2004): 237.
Library Journal 129, no. 8 (May 1, 2004): 143.
The Nation 278, no. 23 (June 14, 2004): 24.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (May 9, 2004): 8.
Publishers Weekly 251, no. 18 (May 3, 2004): 171.