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The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye


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About the Author

A.S. BYATT is the author of the novels Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990), The Game, and the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels and Insects, and four collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Educated at Cambridge, she was a senior lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she lives in London.


All of the five "fairy stories" in Byatt's new collection adopt the conventions of folk or fairy tales: magic enchantments; the granting of three wishes; adventures that involve danger. And as might be expected from a writer of Byatt's talent and interests, several of them deal with the magic of storytelling itself. The title piece, a novella, is the most surprising and appealing. Middle-aged British narratologist Gillian Perholt acquires a beautiful bottle when she attends a convention in Turkey. The djinn she later releases not only grants her three wishes but also teaches her how to avoid the classic folk-tale irony by which the wisher lives to regret the fulfillment of his or her desires. This complex, sometimes prolix, oddly upbeat tale also demonstrates other Byatt preoccupations: protagonists who are academics; stories within stories; philosophic digressions; the theme of the inevitability of destiny. As with all of Byatt's work, there is a fierce intelligence at play, and beautifully nuanced prose. The other standout here is the gently ironic "The Story of the Eldest Princess,'' in which the clever woman, who realizes that the first person to be sent on a quest is always unsuccessful, subverts the conventions and outwits her fate. (In her acknowledgments, Byatt confesses: "I have always worried about being the eldest of three sisters."). "Dragon's Breath" has a brilliantly imaginative description of a volcanic eruption. The other two titles are charming but less memorable. Woodcut illustrations and a format similar to that of The Matisse Stories make for an attractive book. Author tour. (Nov.)

The enjoyment of fairy tales comes from new ways of telling old themes. The underlying stories are predictable‘innocence is tested, a mission accomplished, a lesson learned, and an adult finally born‘but the characters, adventures, and outcome vary with each telling. However, every once in a while this pattern gets bent or broken, as in Byatt's collection of five previously published stories. Each story is refreshingly different, eloquently detailing the story's setting, and each contains developed characters and dialog that make them truly enjoyable. The last and title story is the length of a small novella and is itself a collection of stories within a story. Readers who can keep up will have a fascinating adventure wandering from story to story as a modern middle-aged woman is granted three wishes by a highly personal and experienced genie. More than a play on words, this piece is a play on storytelling. Byatt has redesigned the fairy tale, breathing new life into old themes, and has done it with talent to spare. For all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/97.]‘Laurel Duda, Marine Biological Lab., Woods Hole, Mass.

"A storyteller who could keep a sultan on the edge of his throne for a thousand and one nights." -The New York Times Book Review

"A dreamy treat. . . . It is not merely strange, it is wondrous." -Boston Globe

"Alternatingly erudite and earthy, direct and playful. . . . If Scheherazade ever needs a break, Byatt can step in, indefinitely." -Chicago Tribune

"Byatt's writing is crystalline and splendidly imaginative. . . . These [are] perfectly formed tales." -Washington Post Book World

"Those new to the world of Byatt might well begin here, with these tales-within-tales, which one can read as anything from contemporary allegories-such as the superb Dragon's Breath, evoking every idyll that ever fell foul of war or famine-to sheer celebrations of storytelling itself." -Vogue

"The familiar elements of fairy story come to life under A.S. Byatt's touch . . . with lightness, precision, grace." -Observer

"A cerebral extravaganza, bristling with ideas." -Spectator

"The fairy story is obviously a form that fascinates A.S. Byatt, it suits her spare, cool prose and this collection enables her to create very different effects . . . a beautifully produced book." -Financial Times

"As with all of Byatt's work, there is a fierce intelligence at play, and beautifully nuanced prose." -Publisher's Weekly

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