Once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a reader who bought a book and then quickly forgot it. The lonesome book sat on the reader’s bookshelf for years, slowly collecting the type of dust that only comes with the passage of time. It would be briefly remembered when the reader packed his books for travel to another castle. The forgotten book visited many lands and sat on many shelves continuing to collect even more dust. Then one day while sorting through his collection, the reader became curious about this forgotten literature. Now that it has been read, the reader will never forget it again.
It is a great feeling to open a book not knowing what to expect and be pleasantly surprised, as was the case here. I am a huge fan of modern fairy tales and urban fantasy, so despite having never read this author, the title of the book grabbed my attention. Each of the five fairy stories presented in this book take a modern spin on the classic structure of the fairy tale. While some stories resonated with me more than others (isn’t that always the case with short story collections), I was overall satisfied by the clever writing of A.S. Byatt. The five stories all present classic magical elements such as princesses that need saving, wishes that need granting, and magical enchantments of all varieties. Byatt’s greatest achievement is in taking these elements and using them to explore the idea of the storytelling structure itself.
The title story of this collection is a novella that centers around Gillian Perholt, a highly educated and middle-aged narratologist who discovers a mysterious bottle while at an overseas convention. The bottle contains a djinn, which naturally must grant Gillian three wishes. The story takes many unexpected directions as Byatt takes readers on a journey revolving around Gillian making her own rules and not submitting to the fate of those who end up more miserable following their wishes. I wasn’t expecting the many changes in form within the same story. Often, it would feel like I was reading a scholarly paper on the structure of fiction and the common directions stories often take. Byatt manages these shifts with a subtlety that shows superior depth. This was definitely a nice surprise.
The four shorts that precede the title story appear as conventional fairy tales, but Byatt manages to bring an interesting depth to further explore her thoughts on avoiding the trappings of traditional endings. My favorite of these was “The Story of the Eldest Princess.” In this fairy tale, the oldest sibling goes on a quest to save her kingdom. Halfway through her adventure, she realizes that she is destined to fail due to it always being tradition that the first person sent is always the one who perishes. However, this intelligent princess manages to outwit destiny and choose her own fate. Anyone seeking a new take on fairy tales and myths should check out this book. I saw this author has a book on the 1001 list which I plan to check out soon.
So concludes another review from a reader who plans to seek out the other forgotten books in his collection. So that they can continue to live happily ever after.
“You are a born storyteller,” said the old lady. “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.”