04 August 2009

Book Review: The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A. S. Byatt

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye In “The Glass Coffin” an utterly ordinary little tailor sets off on an adventure more remarkable than any fate he’d imagined might be his. “Gode's Story” tells of a village girl whose pride brings a strange visitation. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” shows what happens when a girl embarks on a fairy-tale quest she knows is doomed to fail. Three siblings learn to be careful what they wish for when the tedium of country life is broken by “Dragon’s Breath.” And in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” an academic travelling to Turkey buys a lovely piece of nightingale’s-eye glass and discovers that it was not as empty as it seemed.

After reading Eliza Makepeace’s stories in The Forgotten Garden I felt in the mood for more fairy tales and this collection was just the thing. At first I was just a little disappointed to see that two of the stories were reprinted from Possession rather than new; but it’s been long enough since I’ve read Possession that I couldn’t really remember them. “Gode’s Story” was just as unsettling and strange the third time around, and I’m still not entirely sure what the ghostly visitor was or what it came for. “The Glass Coffin” is a lovely piece - the tailor is about as far from your typical dashing hero as you can get, with a correspondingly atypical approach to the challenges he encounters, and I very much hoped he would triumph.

Of the four shorter pieces my favourite was “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” who knew that she and her sisters were in a situation straight out of a fairy-tale. Since, in such tales, it is always the third sister who finally succeeds the eldest girl’s quest was certain to fail but she still applied her knowledge of fairy-tales to everything she met on the road in the hope of making the right decisions, until a chance arrived for her to choose her own ending. It reminded me vaguely of Howl’s Moving Castle which I haven’t read for a decade - I’m sure there was something in that about the eldest of three sisters being bound to fail if she sets out to make her fortune. (Wasn’t there?)

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is novella-length, and reading it was the perfect escape from the misery of a bad cold. (Which I suspect was another reason to avoid the library during school holidays.) I loved Gillian’s notion of herself as “keeping watch on the borders of correctness” - I’ve adopted the phrase to describe my spelling-grammar-and-punctuation pedantry. It sounds so much better that way, doesn’t it? In fact I liked everything about Gillian, primarily the fact that she had dedicated her life to words and stories. What was shown of her work left me wanting to read the tales of the 1,001 Nights and become acquainted with some middle-eastern mythology. So did the djinn, who bore little resemblance to the floating figures trailing wisps of smoke you see in cartoons, but altogether more corporeal and authentic. When the time came for the inevitable three wishes, I admired Gillian’s careful deliberation and her combination of what was practical with what she wanted. The thought she put into her choices made me wonder what I would do in her position, and whether I could be so judicious.

Rating: B+


Jenny said...

Great review - I've been wanting to read some good fairy tales, and this sounds like just the thing!

Laura's Reviews said...

Sounds great! I loved Possession and also love fairy tales so I'll have to check this out one of these days.

Thanks for the great review!

Aimee said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, doll!

My favourite of the 5 stories was the eldest princess as well. It was the perfect spinout. :)

Rhinoa said...

I haven't yet read anything by Byatt but am looking forward to making a start on her this year. I love fairy tale re-tellings and inspirations so think I will love her. Thanks for the review, I will look out for this one.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776