[At The Edge of the Universe, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us. Today we have two reviews of A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.]
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is a collection of five stories, or more accurately, four stories and a novella, since the title story is actually quite long; it takes up half the book.
First we have “The Glass Coffin,” which is excerpted from Byatt’s stellar novel Possession. It’s a fairly standard princess-rescuing sort of fairy tale, starring a young man who chooses adventure over good sense, and is rewarded for it.
Then comes “Gode’s Story,” also from Possession, which is about a man who returns from the sea to find his lover deeply changed. It was great within the setting of the novel, and set the mood perfectly for Christabel’s time in Brittany and alludes to her secret, but standing alone it feels more depressing and more cryptic. It works better in its original context.
“The Tale of the Eldest Princess” is simply delightful. The princess goes out on a quest, keenly aware that the eldest child in stories always fails in his or her quest, and usually because of arrogance. This is the story of how the princess consciously tries to make the story go differently this time. In the end she finds something she didn’t even know she was looking for.
“Dragons’ Breath” is a story of bored villagers who gain a new perspective after volcanic creatures destroy most of their town; suddenly they come alive again with tales of tragedy, heroism, and dumb luck. Suddenly they see value in what they have, even if only for a time. I first read this story in the late fall of 2001 and, while Byatt had written it several years before my reading, I couldn’t help but think of the way everyone I knew clustered together to tell stories — almost as if by instinct — after the attacks of 9/11.
Finally, we come to the title novella, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” which is a lush and romantic tale about a middle-aged professor who goes to a conference in Istanbul, and buys a pretty glass bottle that just happens to contain a djinn. It’s a sensual and enchanting tale of a woman learning new things about herself. It is so richly written that Byatt can refer to the remote control as “the black lozenge” without sounding ridiculous. We are immersed in a world of hotels and shops, described so lushly that they feel like scenes from Arabian Nights tales of many years ago, despite their modernity. And while we know, from other tales, what the woman’s third wish will be, the ending is written beautifully and doesn’t feel clichéd.
All in all, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is a wonderful collection for anyone who enjoys retold tales and/or A.S. Byatt’s writing.