The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: A great way to spend a frosty evening

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. ByattThe Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt

[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.

~Kelly Lasiter


The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. ByattWinter’s coming and I can’t think of a better way to spend a frosty evening than snuggled under a quilt with a copy of A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.

The centerpiece of this small collection of short works is the title story, but Byatt leads us off with four fairy tales. Two are retellings of Victorian-era tales and two are Byatt originals. “The Glass Coffin,” a retelling, follows the adventures of a humble tailor who uses courtesy, artistry and competence to battle an evil wizard and woo a fair lady. The evil wizard part of the story, and the princess asleep in the glass coffin, will seem familiar to all of us, but the lead-up to that scene, and what follows, is not quite what we expect from the traditional tale.

“Gode’s Story” is darker, reminiscent of “The Red Shoes,” a story of love and pride that does not end happily for everyone. For me, Byatt’s prose and imagery carried this story.

… And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the miller’s daughter, beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked him, but looked sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching.

The pride of both the miller’s daughter and the young sailor who is the object of her affection keeps them apart, although the girl’s secret devotion to him, while he is at sea, seems to conjure up a strange entity that haunts her the rest of her life.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess” is a Byatt original. Byatt plays with conventions, like the rule of three, the purpose of animal helpers, and the trope of the third child (the fool) saving the day. In her story, a king and queen have three daughters. As each daughter is born, the sky changes slightly from blue to green. Soon it turns completely green. The people of the kingdom grow restive and the king decides to send his eldest daughter on a quest to return the sky to blue. Along the road, the princess reflects that it is her fate to fail because the eldest always does. She hears a tiny voice calling for help and discovers an injured scorpion. She decides, after some deliberation, to help the arachnid (sensibly, she uses a leaf to pick it up and transport it to her basket). Later, she finds an injured toad who was attacked by a prince who believed it had a jewel in its head, and a cockroach. Having left the road and journeyed into the forest, she seeks the healing powers of the wise old woman of the woods. “The Tale of the Eldest Princess” is a story about stories (the old woman uses stories to heal the creatures), and a nice fable about personal power.

I couldn’t read “Dragons’ Breath” as anything more than an extended metaphor. The tale is about Jack, Harry and Eva — only it isn’t, really — three siblings who live in a peaceful, isolated village. In fact, it is so peaceful and isolated that the three young people are bored, and imagine going to a great city or seeing the ocean. Meanwhile, on the mountain above the village, things are beginning to change. Ice and snow melt, steam rises, and six strange new shapes appear on the mountain, along with clouds of ash and smoke. After a village woman opines that the shapes look like the heads of dragons, the villagers all realize that there are, in fact, six dragons making their way down the mountain. They move slowly, growing closer and closer to the village.

The villagers discussed for far too long the chances of the village being destroyed. They discussed also expedients for diverting or damaging the worms, but these were futile and came to nothing. They discussed also the line of the creatures’ advance; whether it crossed the village or whether it might be projected to pass it by on one side or the other. Afterward, it might have been easy to agree that it was always clear that the village stood squarely in the path of that terrible descent, but hope misleads, and inertia misleads, and it is hard to imagine the vanishing of that which seems as stable as stone.

The dragons have no malicious intent; they have an instinctual objective and go toward it. There is no dragon-slayer knight or plucky village youth in this tale. When they realize that there is no escape, the villagers flee to the forest. The aftermath of the visitation of the six dragons is random and terrible. Two of the siblings survive, but one does not. When Jack and Eva return to the ruined village, they find their house untouched by the disaster, although Eva sees everything as if with new eyes.

The story was written in 1994 and, with all the steam, melting snow, and desiccated farmland, it is easy to read it as a comment on accelerated climate change. Byatt’s skill is in making this story more general and universal. The worms could represent climate change; they could represent war, economic catastrophe, or even something more personal like the consequences of ignoring diabetes symptoms, or high blood pressure, because hope and inertia both mislead.

Gillian Perholt is the female lead in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” the complex novella that finishes up the book. The male lead, so to speak, is the djinn. Gillian is a “narratologist,” a studier of stories, “a being of a secondary order, whose days were spent in the great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairytales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world”; a divorced woman in her mid-fifties with a well-established academic career. Gillian attends a conference in Ankara and meets an old friend from college. After the conference, she and the friend visit museums and various other points of interest, and Gillian has several strange encounters. The first third of the novella, it seems, is about the study of stories, or about the stories: stories of the goddess, of Gilgamesh, of the Arabian Nights. For her conference presentation, Gillian has chosen the story of Patient Griselda from Chaucer, a tale of a willfully powerless woman — a sharp contrast to the statues of the great goddess that her friend takes her to see. Long before the djinn makes an appearance, Gillian has been visited by strange visions, which may be hallucinations or something more. In Istanbul, she purchases a glass bottle with a beautiful design the proprietor tells her is called “Eye of the Nightingale.”

In her hotel room, Gillian washes the dust off the bottle and releases its occupant.

… The dark cloud gathered and turned and flew in a great paisley or comma out of the bathroom. I am seeing things, thought Dr. Perholt, following, and found she could not follow, for the bathroom door was blocked by what she slowly made out to be an enormous foot, a foot with five toes as high as she was, surmounted by yellow horny nails, a foot encased in skin that was olive-colored, laced with gold, like snakeskin, not scaly but somehow mailed. It was between transparent and solid. Gillian put out a hand. It was palpable, and very hot to the touch, not hot as a coal but considerably hotter than the water in which she had washed the bottle.

The almost scientific physicality of that description makes the reader immediately believe in the being who has manifested in Gillian’s room.

What follows is far from a conventional “three wishes” story. Of course, Gillian is offered three wishes, with a few ground-rules we haven’t heard before; the natural laws cannot be superseded, so immortality, for instance, is not possible. In a way, as we hear the djinn’s story, we see that this is his third chance, too. The djinn loves mortal women. Originally he was free, a being of subtle fire who loved the Queen of Sheba (said to be half-djinn herself). Her human suitor was a powerful wizard who trapped the djinn in a bottle to get rid of him. Much later, the djinn was released by Zefir, a young second wife of a much older merchant, who treated her, the djinn says, like a pet or a toy. Zefir was thirsty for knowledge and the djinn gave it to her, but she was angry and frustrated by her existence, and that frustration turned inward. Once, when the djinn had shrunk down to hide inside a bottle, for her entertainment, she said, without thinking, “I wish I could forget I ever met you,” and she did, trapping the djinn again.

Gillian is wise as well as clever. She is also uniquely placed to understand all the permutations of the three-wish stories, and she and the djinn talk quite a bit before she begins to use her wishes. They trade tales of their societies and Byatt uses this opportunity to make many feminist points. Zefir herself is a feminist symbol, but the saddest story in the book is Gillian’s own, when she chooses to make her first wish. She wishes for her body to return to the time she liked it the best, and she changes, physically, to the appearance of a thirty-to–thirty-five year old. She is quite attractive, but she tells the djinn a story from her youth, when, in her early twenties, she stayed overnight at a friend’s house the night before the friend’s wedding. She talks about bathing with the friend, and mentions that she was really beautiful, nearly perfect. “But that is not what I changed you into,” says the djinn, obviously confused. Gillian, telling her story, says that she was afraid of the power of her beauty. She makes it seem as if she had this insight in the bath, at that time, but goes on to say that the next morning, before the wedding, her friend’s father came into her bedroom, pushed down the arms of her nightgown, grabbed her breasts and buried his face in them, as if they were objects for his use, as if she weren’t a person. He then brought her breakfast in bed as if nothing had happened.

“And I felt sick, and I felt my body was to blame. As though out of that,” she said lucidly, “was spun snuffling and sweat and three-piece suits…”

Gillian, an educated and powerful woman in the mid-1990s, still turns the blame for predatory behavior inward, blaming her body. Gillian, who went to college, has her own career and can fly through the air in a machine, is not all that different from Zefir.

The story does not have the traditional ending, but it has the right one for this lovesick magical being and the educated woman who is beginning to discover herself. The story is academic, witty and tender. There were a few moments when the plot made me raise my eyebrows, but the relationship between the djinn and the narratologist was charming and funny.

Let me say this again: “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is academic. You will read through several tales and semi-scholarly discussions among Gillian’s friends, not to mention Gillian’s own internal musings before you meet the djinn. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then probably the story won’t be for you. I happen to like that sort of thing. I appreciate the layering done here: the stories about stories of stories. Nobody pulls that off quite like Byatt.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 1997. The magnificent title story of this collection of fairy tales for adults describes the strange and uncanny relationship between its extravagantly intelligent heroine–a world renowned scholar of the art of story-telling–and the marvelous being that lives in a mysterious bottle, found in a dusty shop in an Istanbul bazaar. As A.S. Byatt renders this relationship with a powerful combination of erudition and passion, she makes the interaction of the natural and the supernatural seem not only convincing, but inevitable. The companion stories in this collection each display different facets of Byatt’s remarkable gift for enchantment. They range from fables of sexual obsession to allegories of political tragedy; they draw us into narratives that are as mesmerizing as dreams and as bracing as philosophical meditations; and they all us to inhabit an imaginative universe astonishing in the precision of its detail, its intellectual consistency, and its splendor.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned the Possession connection!

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