1997. Random House. Hardcover. 274 pages.
From: the public library
Recommended by: Eva of A Striped Armchair in her Assembling my Atheneum post about A. S. Byatt. She recommended The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye for Byatt newbies who wanted to start with something shorter than the well-known but hefty Possession.
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is a collection of five short stories, with the title story being the longest and perhaps qualifying as a novella. Here are my thoughts on all five stories:
“The Glass Coffin” and “The Eldest Princess” are stories that have fairytale trappings but are inhabited by protagonists who realize that they are in a fairytale scenario and this influences their actions. They know how things “worked in stories” and use this knowledge to their advantage. “The Eldest Princess” is my favorite of the five stories in this book. Sent on a quest, the eldest princess knows that by the rules of fairytale, the eldest princess never succeeds on the quest but is usually turned to stone or similar fate. With the help of some unlikely companions, the eldest princess works to change her destiny.
“Gode’s Story” is about two prideful people and the fall-out of their relationship. It has a folktale feel. To tell the truth, I didn’t get the point or appeal of this story at all and it got very strange at the end.
As with the first two stories I mentioned, “Dragon’s Breath” is about the relationship between life and stories. A village fails to realize its impending doom from an approaching dragon and when the villagers escape, it’s without a plan and with much panic. It’s a bit forgettable, although I appreciated it as I was reading it.
In the title story, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the main character – Gillian – is an English narratologist and professor, who studies and collects stories from around the world. The story begins when Gillian is at a conference in Turkey. Narratologist friends from Turkey show her around – take her to see Hagia Sophia, Ephesus, etc. and amongst the descriptions of place, Byatt includes stories retold by the characters, and the main character’s thoughts about narrative. This structure reminded me of what I’d heard about the structure of Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I haven’t read.
Maybe midway through the story, Gillian is given a glass bottle as a gift, as she is fond of glass paperweights. When she opens the old bottle, a djinn is released with the power to grant her three wishes. Gillian and the djinn also swap stories from their personal lives.
One thing I appreciated about the title story is the contrast between the djinn’s style of story and Gillian’s style of story when they talk about themselves. The djinn doesn’t understand the modern concept of story, where there is no conclusive end.
Unfortunately, the title story didn’t fully engage me overall. I do think Byatt is a good writer and I like how she articulates themes about storytelling. I just didn’t feel compelled to keep reading the title story for its own sake. I finished the story so that I would complete the book.
I feel like this review is not the greatest, but I had a hard time thinking of what to say exactly about the whole collection. As for Byatt’s other works, I am interested in Possession, but not sure I would want to tackle The Children’s Book, which seems the more divisive of the two Byatt tomes.
Educating Petunia – “I was a little disappointed that most of these tales were recycled from other [of Byatt’s] books but ultimately I was glad to read a book of Byatt’s fairy tales. She understands how to bring up the most subtle feelings in her readers.”
Jenny of Shelf Love – “All five are intricate delights, little gems of craftsmanship that owe as much to modern feminism and narratology as they do to ancient folk and fairy tales. They lead you to look into the depths even as you enjoy the surface.”
The Written World – “.. I didn’t like the last story. The last story is why it took me so long to finish this collection. I think I am finding that I don’t really like A.S. Byatt. She is a brilliant writer, I do acknowledge that, but she doesn’t work for me.”