I admit it, I feel misled by the cover blurb on A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories. It starts off “Like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, A. s. Byatt knows that fairy tales are for grown-ups. And in this ravishing collection she breathes new life into the form.” So I was anticipating a book of fairy tales, but what it gave me was just what it said in the title: A book of stories. Although there were lavish descriptions and rich details that maybe the writers of the cover blurb interpreted as being magical, very few of the stories contained magic in any way, and I ended up very disappointed.
In more spoilerific detail, “The thing in the forest” seemed like it was going to have some mystical creature, but it is barely mentioned in the actual story. Two girls think they saw something in the forest when they were together, and most of the story is about how they lived their lives after they separated from each other, and how they were eventually reunited later. The thing in the forest is just a shared experience that draws them together, but we never find out anything about the thing. I once made a friendship at a coffee shop with someone who had ordered a smoothie like I had: We both had plastic shrapnel in our drinks from the machine breaking down while it was mixing, and somehow this was the basis of a friendship that lasted for years and still continues. Even though we’ve separated across the country, I still think of him when I go to coffee shops. The two girls could have easily had their lives connected by some other shared experience without making much difference in the story.
“Body Art” had even less to do with anything magical whatsoever. It’s about a doctor who has a weird relationship with an artist. I have no idea how anyone could read it and think “fairy tale.” I was strongly thinking about giving up on the book then, because it definitely was not what I was expecting from the cover, and not something I particularly wanted. Because I was stuck on the plane with only the one book, however, I kept reading and was rewarded with “The Stone Woman,” which was a very creative and magical story indeed about a woman slowly turning into stone, and her transition from the mundane world into a magical one. It even involved mythological creatures. It was exactly the kind of story I was hoping for, but it was followed by yet another mundane story that had nothing to do with fairy tales. “Raw Material” was a story of a struggling writer turned teacher, and the students in his class. The final offering of the book, “The Pink Ribbon” had a magical element to it, though I would classify it more as being a ghost story than a fairy tale. On the whole, the book had good writing, though the descriptions sometimes got long enough that I was tempted to skip ahead to try to find where the story moved forward again. I think if I hadn’t been expecting fairy tales, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with it.