Cover image for Little black book of stories
Title:
Little black book of stories
Author:
Byatt, A. S. (Antonia Susan), 1936-
Edition:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2004.

©2003
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 20 cm
Language:
English
Contents:
The thing in the forest -- Body art -- A stone woman -- Raw material -- The pink ribbon.
ISBN:
9781400041770
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

The Booker Prize--winning author ofPossessionandA Whistling Womanis at her best in this dazzling collection of five new tales. Little Black Book of Storiesoffers shivers along with magical thrills. Leaves rustle underfoot in a dark wood: two middle-aged women walk into a forest, as they did when they were girls, confronting their childhood fears and memories and the strange thing they saw--or thought they saw--so long ago. A distinguished male obstetrician and a young woman artist meet in a hospital, but they have very different ideas about body parts, birth, and death. A man meets the ghost of his living wife; a woman turns to stone. And an innocent member of an evening creative writing class turns out to have her own decided views on the best way to use "raw material." These unforgettable stories are by turns haunting, funny, sparkling, and scary. Byatt'sLittle Black Bookadds a deliciously dark note to her skill in mixing folk and fairy tales with everyday life.


Author Notes

A.S. Byatt was born on August 24, 1936 in Sheffield, England. She received a B.A. from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1957, did graduate study at Bryn Mawr College from 1957-58, and attended Somerville College, Oxford from 1958-59. She was a staff member in the extra-mural department at the University of London from 1962-71. From 1968-69, she was also a part-time lecturer in the liberal studies department of the Central School of Art and Design, London. She was a lecturer at University College from 1972-80 and then senior lecturer from 1981-83.

She became a full-time writer in 1983. Her works include The Biographer's Tale, The Virgin in the Garden, Babel Tower, A Whistling Woman, and The Children's Book. She also wrote numerous collections of short stories including Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Elementals, and Little Black Book of Stories. Byatt received the English Speaking Union fellowship in 1957-58, the Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983, the Silver Pen Award for Still Life, and the Booker Prize for Possession: A Romance in 1990.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Byatt is commanding. Her prose is crisp and astringent. Her insights are lacerating, her approach sly, her visions searing, her wit honed, and her imagination peripatetic and larcenous, feasting on art, myth, fairy tales, and science. While her novels, including the brilliant A Whistling Woman (2002) and the Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990) , are complex and powerful, her short stories are dazzling concentrates. As in her earlier collections, The Matisse Stories (1995), The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1997), and Elementals (1999), Byatt creates, in her newest set of gems, a palimpsest of art and life as she examines how each shapes the other, and how trauma, be it personal or the mass psychosis of war, irrevocably transforms personalities and lives. In several galvanizing and highly original tales, including Body Art, in which a gynecologist reluctantly gets involved with an angry young artist, she postulates deeply intriguing conflicts over the sacredness and profanity of the body and the vulnerability of the mind. And once again, Byatt proves herself to be the queen of fractured fairy tales. In The Thing in the Woods, two young girls evacuated from London at the start of World War II see something loathsome in the forest, a grotesque embodiment of evil, while A Stone Woman stands as a gloriously beautiful evocation of grief and metamorphosis. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

From secret agonies to improper desires and the unthinkable, this slyly titled collection touches on more than a little bit of darkness. Booker Prize-winning author Byatt (Possession) masterfully fuses fantasy with realism in several of these stories, packing a punch with her sometimes witty, sometimes horrifying examinations of faith, art and memory. In the stunning "The Thing in the Wood," two young girls, Penny and Primrose, sent to the countryside during the WWII London blitz, confront the unconscious come to life as a monster ("its expression was neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery.... It was made of rank meat, and decaying vegetation"). They return in middle age to face the Thing again, but Penny, a psychotherapist, doesn't fare as well as Primrose, a children's storyteller. A lapsed Catholic gynecologist tries to rescue a starving artist in "Body Art," enacting what Byatt casts as the very obstructiveness of the Church he left behind. It's a chilling story that shines with grace. Byatt's modern-day fairy tale, "A Stone Woman," details a woman's metamorphosis from flesh to stone, which is both terrible and redemptive ("Jagged flakes of silica and nodes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh"). In "Raw Material," a creative writing teacher finds inspiration in the work of an elderly student who comes to a gruesome end, the student's life and death imitating bad art very unlike her own. The haunting final story of the collection, "The Pink Ribbon," about a man who is more troubled by remembering than by forgetting as he cares for his Alzheimer's-addled wife, turns on the appearance of the ghost of the wife's former self. With an accomplished balance of quotidian detail and eloquent flights of imagination, Byatt has crafted a powerful new collection. Agent, Peter Matson. (May) Forecast: Gorgeously subdued jacket art, the coy title and Byatt's name should attract considerable browser traffic; expect sales to keep pace. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Exiled from wartime London, two little girls think they see something monstrous in the forest, and when they meet again as middle-aged women (both slightly disdainful and slightly disappointed) they try to reconstruct the truth of their vision. A rather glum, self-righteous obstetrician, still struggling with the consequences of his lapsed Catholicism, encounters a waiflike young artist at his hospital and commences a quickie affair that lays bare just how different their values are. A novelist who hasn't amounted to much after his first success and now teaches a bargain-basement writing class encounters a much older woman who really can write. But when he goes to visit her after her first modest publishing success, he finds her horrifically murdered. Byatt demonstrates her formidable skill in this little collection of perfectly rendered pieces. The prose is arresting and memorable, the images linger, getting under your skin. But as a whole these stories are also a little cold-eyed and merciless. They are indeed "black," and some readers might even call them sour. For all literary collections, given Byatt's reputation, though this won't pull in as many readers as Possession. Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest. The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety-pins, and they carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas-mask. They wore knitted scarves and bonnets or caps, and many had knitted gloves attached to long tapes which ran along their sleeves, inside their coats, and over their shoulders and out, so that they could leave their ten woollen fingers dangling, like a spare pair of hands, like a scarecrow. They all had bare legs and scuffed shoes and wrinkled socks. Most had wounds on their knees in varying stages of freshness and scabbiness. They were at the age when children fall often and their knees were unprotected. With their suitcases, some of which were almost too big to carry, and their other impedimenta, a doll, a toy car, a comic, they were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform. The two little girls had not met before, and made friends on the train. They shared a square of chocolate, and took alternate bites at an apple. One gave the other the inside page of her Beano. Their names were Penny and Primrose. Penny was thin and dark and taller, possibly older, than Primrose, who was plump and blonde and curly. Primrose had bitten nails, and a velvet collar to her dressy green coat. Penny had a bloodless transparent paleness, a touch of blue in her fine lips. Neither of them knew where they were going, nor how long the journey might take. They did not even know why they were going, since neither of their mothers had quite known how to explain the danger to them. How do you say to your child, I am sending you away, because enemy bombs may fall out of the sky, because the streets of the city may burn like forest fires of brick and timber, but I myself am staying here, in what I believe may be daily danger of burning, burying alive, gas, and ultimately perhaps a grey army rolling in on tanks over the suburbs, or sailing its submarines up our river, all guns blazing? So the mothers (who did not resemble each other at all) behaved alike, and explained nothing, it was easier. Their daughters they knew were little girls, who would not be able to understand or imagine. The girls discussed on the train whether it was a sort of holiday or a sort of punishment, or a bit of both. Penny had read a book about Boy Scouts, but the children on the train did not appear to be Brownies or Wolf Cubs, only a mongrel battalion of the lost. Both little girls had the idea that these were all perhaps not very good children, possibly being sent away for that reason. They were pleased to be able to define each other as "nice." They would stick together, they agreed. Try to sit together, and things. The train crawled sluggishly further and further away from the city and their homes. It was not a clean train--the upholstery of their carriage had the dank smell of unwashed trousers, and the gusts of hot steam rolling backwards past their windows were full of specks of flimsy ash, and sharp grit, and occasional fiery sparks that pricked face and fingers like hot needles if you opened the window. It was very noisy too, whenever it picked up a little speed. The engine gave great bellowing sighs, and the invisible wheels underneath clicked rhythmically and monotonously, tap-tap-tap-CRASH, tap-tap-tap-CRASH. The window-panes were both grimy and misted up. The train stopped frequently, and when it stopped, they used their gloves to wipe rounds, through which they peered out at flooded fields, furrowed hillsides and tiny stations whose names were carefully blacked out, whose platforms were empty of life. The children did not know that the namelessness was meant to baffle or delude an invading army. They felt--they did not think it out, but somewhere inside them the idea sprouted--that the erasure was because of them, because they were not meant to know where they were going or, like Hansel and Gretel, to find the way back. They did not speak to each other of this anxiety, but began the kind of conversation children have about things they really disliked, things that upset, or disgusted, or frightened them. Semolina pudding with its grainy texture, mushy peas, fat on roast meat. Listening to the stairs and the window-sashes creaking in the dark or the wind. Having your head held roughly back over the basin to have your hair washed, with cold water running down inside your liberty bodice. Gangs in playgrounds. They felt the pressure of all the other alien children in all the other carriages as a potential gang. They shared another square of chocolate, and licked their fingers, and looked out at a great white goose flapping its wings beside an inky pond. The sky grew dark grey and in the end the train halted. The children got out, and lined up in a crocodile, and were led to a mud-coloured bus. Penny and Primrose managed to get a seat together, although it was over the wheel, and both of them began to feel sick as the bus bumped along snaking country lanes, under whipping branches, dark leaves on dark wooden arms on a dark sky, with torn strips of thin cloud streaming across a full moon, visible occasionally between them. They were billeted temporarily in a man- sion commandeered from its owner, which was to be arranged to hold a hospital for the long-term disabled, and a secret store of artworks and other valuables. The children were told they were there temporarily, until families were found to take them all into their homes. Penny and Primrose held hands, and said to each other that it would be wizard if they could go to the same family, because at least they would have each other. They didn't say anything to the rather tired-looking ladies who were ordering them about, because with the cunning of little children, they knew that requests were most often counter-productive, adults liked saying no. They imagined possible families into which they might be thrust. They did not discuss what they imagined, as these pictures, like the black station signs, were too frightening, and words might make some horror solid, in some magical way. Penny, who was a reading child, imagined Victorian dark pillars of severity, like Jane Eyre's Mr. Brocklehurst, or David Copperfield's Mr. Murdstone. Primrose imagined--she didn't know why--a fat woman with a white cap and round red arms who smiled nicely but made the children wear sacking aprons and scrub the steps and the stove. "It's like we were orphans," she said to Penny. "But we're not," Penny said. "If we manage to stick together . . ." The great house had a double flight of imposing stairs to its front door, and carved griffins and unicorns on its balustrade. There was no lighting, because of the black-out. All the windows were shuttered. No welcoming brightness leaked across door or windowsill. The children trudged up the staircase in their crocodile, hung their coats on numbered makeshift hooks, and were given supper (Irish stew and rice pudding with a dollop of blood-red jam) before going to bed in long makeshift dormitories, where once servants had slept. They had camp-beds (military issue) and grey shoddy blankets. Penny and Primrose got beds together but couldn't get a corner. They queued to brush their teeth in a tiny washroom, and both suffered (again without speaking) suffocating anxiety about what would happen if they wanted to pee in the middle of the night, because the lavatory was one floor down, the lights were all extinguished, and they were a long way from the door. They also suffered from a fear that in the dark the other children would start laughing and rushing and teasing, and turn themselves into a gang. But that did not happen. Every- one was tired and anxious and orphaned. An uneasy silence, a drift of perturbed sleep, came over them all. The only sounds--from all parts of the great dormitory it seemed--were suppressed snuffles and sobs, from faces pressed into thin pillows. When daylight came, things seemed, as they mostly do, brighter and better. The children were given breakfast in a large vaulted room. They sat at trestle tables, eating porridge made with water and a dab of the red jam, heavy cups of strong tea. Then they were told they could go out and play until lunch-time. Children in those days--wherever they came from--were not closely watched, were allowed to come and go freely, and those evacuated children were not herded into any kind of holding-pen, or transit camp. They were told they should be back for lunch at 12:30, by which time those in charge hoped to have sorted out their provisional future lives. It was not known how they would know when it was 12:30, but it was expected that--despite the fact that few of them had wrist-watches--they would know how to keep an eye on the time. It was what they were used to. Penny and Primrose went out together, in their respectable coats and laced shoes, on to the terrace. The terrace appeared to them to be vast, and was indeed extensive. It was covered with a fine layer of damp gravel, stained here and there bright green, or invaded by mosses. Beyond it was a stone balustrade, with a staircase leading down to a lawn, which that morning had a quicksilver sheen on the lengthening grass. It was flanked by long flower-beds, full of overblown annuals and damp clumps of stalks. A gardener would have noticed the beginnings of neglect, but these were urban little girls, and they noticed the jungly mass of wet stems, and the wet, vegetable smell. Across the lawn, which seemed considerably vaster than the vast terrace, was a sculpted yew hedge, with many twigs and shoots out of place and ruffled. In the middle of the hedge was a wicket-gate, and beyond the gate were trees, woodland, a forest, the little girls said to themselves. "Let's go into the forest," said Penny, as though the sentence was required of her. Primrose hesitated. Most of the other children were running up and down the terrace, scuffing their shoes in the gravel. Some boys were kicking a ball on the grass. The sun came right out, full from behind a hazy cloud, and the trees suddenly looked both gleaming and secret. "OK," said Primrose. "We needn't go far." "No. I've never been in a forest." "Nor me." "We ought to look at it, while we've got the opportunity," said Penny. There was a very small child--one of the smallest--whose name, she told everyone, was Alys. With a y, she told those who could spell, and those who couldn't, which surely included herself. She was barely out of nappies. She was quite extraordinarily pretty, pink and white, with large pale blue eyes, and sparse little golden curls all over her head and neck, through which her pink skin could be seen. Nobody seemed to be in charge of her, no elder brother or sister. She had not quite managed to wash the tearstains from her dimpled cheeks. She had made several attempts to attach herself to Penny and Primrose. They did not want her. They were excited about meeting and liking each other. She said now: "I'm coming too, into the forest." "No, you aren't," said Primrose. "You're too little, you must stay here," said Penny. "You'll get lost," said Primrose. "You won't get lost. I'll come with you," said the little creature, with an engaging smile, made for loving parents and grandparents. "We don't want you, you see," said Primrose. "It's for your own good," said Penny. Alys went on smiling hopefully, the smile becoming more of a mask. "It will be all right," said Alys. "Run," said Primrose. They ran; they ran down the steps and across the lawn, and through the gate, into the forest. They didn't look back. They were long-legged little girls, not toddlers. The trees were silent round them, holding out their branches to the sun, breathing noiselessly. Excerpted from Little Black Book of Stories by A. S. Byatt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.