A.S. Byatt,
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye:
Five Fairy Stories

(Chatto & Windus, 1994)

The five stories in The Djinn in Nightingale's Eye illuminate the human condition through the medium of the fairy tale while remaining true to the form.

The first story, "The Glass Coffin," retells a story from the Brothers Grimm about a tailor who, having no means to pursue his craft, embarks on an adventure in which he rescues both a princess and her kingdom, and well as the princess's beloved brother. The tale is written with a mastery of descriptive and evocative language. The second tale, "Gode's Story," is a spare, sad story of a sailor lad, a proud miller's daughter, and the terrible price one can pay for love and its betrayal.

"The Story of the Eldest Princess" is a fairy tale about the structure of fairy tales. It follows the eldest of three princesses on a quest. She recognizes the hopelessness of her situation, since it is always the first two princesses or princes or brothers who fail so that the third one can succeed. Instead of submitting to her fate, she makes her own story, a legacy that is passed on to her sisters.

"Dragon's Breath" was written for a project in aid of Sarajevo. It tells the story of a mountain village which watches the approach of six large lumps in the earth which resolve into huge and hideous dragonlike shapes. They approach inexorably and relentlessly until the villagers flee, helpless to do nothing except watch their homes be destroyed. Byatt uses simple homely details to underscore the horror and helplessness of the villagers' plight.

The title story is actually a novella about Gillian Perholt, a middle-aged Englishwoman, a narratologist -- someone who studies and tells stories. On a trip to Turkey to deliver a paper, she acquires a curious glass bottle of the kind called a "nightingale's eye." She opens the bottle and find herself in the presence of the djinn imprisoned within, who must provide her with three wishes before he can be released. As a student of story, Gillian is very well aware of the care one must exercise in making wishes, and she prolongs her decision until she can be certain of exactly what she wants. The novella seems made up of layers of story which interconnect across cultures and across centuries. The reader not only anticipates Gillian's final wish but approves, reflecting the integration of story and psyche in the reader as well as Gillian.

All five are stories to be read and savored slowly with care and attention to detail and nuance. Here there be potent magic for those who seek it.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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