Little Black Book of Stories

Little Black Book of Stories

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by A. S. Byatt

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Like Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt knows that fairy tales are for grownups. And in this ravishing collection she breathes new life into the form.

Little Black Book of Stories offers shivers along with magical thrills. Leaves rustle underfoot in a dark wood: two middle-aged women,

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Like Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt knows that fairy tales are for grownups. And in this ravishing collection she breathes new life into the form.

Little Black Book of Stories offers shivers along with magical thrills. Leaves rustle underfoot in a dark wood: two middle-aged women, childhood friends reunited by chance, venture into a dark forest where once, many years before, they saw–or thought they saw–something unspeakable. Another woman, recently bereaved, finds herself slowly but surely turning into stone. A coolly rational ob-gyn has his world pushed off-axis by a waiflike art student with her own ideas about the uses of the body. Spellbinding, witty, lovely, terrifying, the Little Black Book of Stories is Byatt at the height of her craft.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A delight. . . . Byatt's stories are provoking and alarming, richly yet tautly rendered. . . .[She] has the sheer narrative skill to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and make your pulse race.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Bewitching . . . immensely readable, fiercely intelligent, and studded with astonishing, refracting images. . . . A virtuoso performance by a master storyteller.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Supremely elegant. . . . Byatt peels back the surface of everyday life–and what she reveals may disturb your sleep.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Striking . . . marvelous . . . impressive. . . . Byatt’s Gothic touch transforms commonplace English settings and characters into unsettling zones of loss and fear.” –The Boston Globe

“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

“Scrumptious . . . these are raw, tough, disruptive stories about memory, duty, madness, guilt, cruelty and loss, stories that grope and reel, that throb with secret longings, secret histories, artistic yearnings and the thrashes and groans of a stinking damnation in the underbrush.”–Miami Herald

“Her finest collection yet. . . . Bleak then surprisingly funny, very dark indeed then full of inconceivable sources of light.” –The Guardian

“Beautifully crafted. . . [Little Black Book of Stories] prods at the tender points where art, pain, and desire intersect.” –The Financial Times

“A potent alchemy of magic, horror and sensual delight.” –Elle

“Captivating . . . disturbing yet funny . . . an utterly compelling read.” –Harper’s Bazaar

“A delightful surprise. . . . A heady infusion of mythology and everyday life, with a strong undercurrent of horror. . . . Moving, thought-provoking, witty, and shocking all at once.” –The Sunday Telegraph

“Haunting . . . Astonishing . . . Vivid . . . Moving . . . [Byatt] is an athlete of the imagination, breaking barriers without apparent effort.” –The Nation

“A sophisticated and powerfully realized work. . . . A bravura performance of imaginative artistry.” –The Times Literary Supplement

Claire Messud
Byatt has the sheer narrative skill to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and make your pulse race. In this fine and memorable collection, she attains a near perfect balance between low and high, body and mind, the Thing and its significance.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
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" Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With painstaking precision, Booker-winner Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) analyzes the frailty, impermanence, and disturbing complexity of the human body. Otherworldly and folkloric motifs link this new collection of five stories with earlier similar volumes (e.g., Elementals, 1999), especially as seen in its opening tale, "The Thing in the Forest." This introduces two young girls, Penny and Primrose, WWII II refugees, who wander one day from the castle where they're housed in a forest clearing, where they glimpse a monstrous misshapen form. The "thing," seemingly "made of rank meat, . . . decaying vegetation, . . . [and] manmade materials," haunts their imaginations forever after: it's a powerful image of formative early fears that never leave us. "Body Art," which interestingly continues the theme of corporeal irregularity and fluidity, details the combative yet mutually sustaining relationship between an emotionally Spartan gynecologist and the female free spirit who provokes and reshapes his emotions. The capacity "to make familiar things look strange" strongly affects an underachieving novelist-writing teacher in "Raw Material." The breakdown of physical and intellectual form is movingly depicted in "The Pink Ribbon," in which a retired classics professor tends to his unreachable wife, a mad babbling shadow of her composed former self, and unknowingly invites into their lives the figure that will bring them both release, and peace. And in the superb centerpiece, "A Stone Woman," a survivor of life-threatening surgery undergoes a "metamorphosis" that takes her beyond her cramped personal world to the alluring landscape of Iceland ("where we are matter-of-fact about strangethings") and a strange, unforeseen and unimaginable liberation. It's as if Isak Dinesen had magically reappeared, to give us one more unclassifiable baroque masterpiece. Byatt has never written better than in these exquisite stories that, together and thus arranged, assume the shape of a life from childhood through old age and death. A stunning, altogether irresistible collection. Agency: Sterling Lord Literistic

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Thing in the Forest

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 safetypins, 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.

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