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YOUR NEXT BOOK: a newsletter for readers

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The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Five Fairy Stories, by A S Byatt


This month’s newsletter is a tribute to the British novelist A S Byatt, who died in November 2023. Described in the Guardian’s obituary as a ‘self-confessed intellectual’ Byatt’s fiction burst onto the popular literary scene with Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990 but was a best- seller before that, despite being an unlikely combination of letters, fables, journals and pastiche Victorian poetry. Angels and Insects followed in 1992. Both Possession and Angels and Insects were made into successful movies.


I am not going to talk about either of those books here. I’ve chosen the less well-known story collection, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which includes a novella, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye of the title, and four short stories.


The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye begins, as do all fairy stories, by announcing that it’s a fairy story.


‘Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.’


It's a fairy story but it is today. And for the next hundred pages it’s today - or 1994, when the book was published.


Dr Gillian Perholt, the largely irrelevant, happy woman, is a narratologist. Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect human perception. (And, yes, I did have to look that up). Narratologists, as far as this story is concerned, spend most of their time flying to conferences to give talks to other narratologists. Gillian Perholt flies to Turkey, which we all know is a place where the air is full of spirits, some of whom get captured in objects such as lamps and bottles and are obliged to grant us three wishes if we release them. But one hundred pages in and, although the tone is still that of a fairy tale, the content is the story of Turkey; the rationalist Turkey of the 1990s, not the reactionary, reverted, Turkey of today. Although that Turkey is presaged. While looking for a supposedly magic pillar in the Haghia Sophia, Gillian and her Turkish  colleague, Orhan, meet a Pakistani family.


‘ “And she, does she speak English?”

It was clear that Gillian had been taken for a quiet Muslim wife. She had been standing two paces behind Orhan as he cast about for the magic pillar. Orhan replied gravely.

“She is English. She is a visiting professor. An eminent visiting professor.”

Orhan, a child of Atatürk’s new world, was enjoying himself…the Pakistani gentleman was not happy.’


Freedoms can exist and they can be taken away.  Humans are frail and not careful about what they wish for. These stories are about a lot more than magic, although they include magic, shocking, unexpected magic.


In the story called Dragon’s Breath a village is destroyed by a dragon. Then there should be a hero who slays the beast, shouldn’t there, not something sad and unnecessary about a fried pig? How is hopelessness converted into legend?


The Story of the Eldest Princess… hang on, shouldn’t that be The Story of the Youngest Princess? It’s always the youngest one that gets it right, isn’t it?  And princesses are not supposed to befriend scorpions, toads and cockroaches (at least only sanitized, Disneyfied ones). Princesses are supposed to find their true love, ‘naked to the waist, with black curly hair, leaning on a long axe and singing:


Come live with me and be my love

And share my house and share my bed

And you may sing from dawn to dark

And churn the cream and bake the bread

And lie at night in my strong arms

Beneath a soft goosefeather spread.’


The Princess is about to fulfil the destiny the story demands, but a scratchy cockroach voice rasps out from her basket:


‘And you may scour and sweep and scrub

With bleeding hands and arms like lead

And I will beat your back and drive

My knotty fists against your head

And sing again to other girls

To take your place, when you are dead.’


The cockroach knows. He has crept around the dark crevices of people’s houses.


A S Byatt has such a mastery of the open tone and straightforward language of the fairy tale and so cleverly controls the way a fairy tale evokes the dark fears of the human psyche that it is hard to keep in mind that she has made all this up. Those verses are her own and this book is no re-telling of The Arabian Nights. She follows all the tropes, then she does something that hits you in the stomach. Intertwined, like roses and their thorns on a trellis, her fairy tales are both fables and commentaries on the preoccupations of modern times.


And is there a djinn in a bottle? And where does a nightingale’s eye feature? I’m not going to tell you. You will have to read the book.

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A S Byatt

photographs are author's own

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