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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Little Black Book of Stories

by
A.S.Byatt


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Little Black Book of Stories



Title: Little Black Book of Stories
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Stories
Written: 2003
Length: 240 pages
Availability: Little Black Book of Stories - US
Little Black Book of Stories - UK
Little Black Book of Stories - Canada
Little Black Book Of Stories - India
Petits contes noirs - France
El libro negro de los cuentos - España
  • Includes the story A Stone Woman, also published in The New Yorker

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, fairly dark collection

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 10/11/2003 Cressida Connolly
Entertainment Weekly A- 30/4/2004 Jennifer Reese
The Guardian A+ 6/12/2003 Ali Smith
The Independent . 21/11/2003 Mary Flanagan
Independent on Sunday . 30/11/2003 Nicola Smyth
The LA Times . 9/5/2004 Jane Ciabattari
The Nation . 14/6/2004 Maria Margaronis
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/5/2004 Claire Messud
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/5/2004 Laurel Maury
The Spectator . 29/11/2003 Stephen Abell
Sunday Telegraph . 16/11/2003 Katie Owen
Sydney Morning Herald . 3/4/2004 Daphne Guinness
TLS . 31/10/2003 Samantha Matthews
Wall St. Journal . 7/5/2004 Merle Rubin


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- not even about which are the good stories -- but generally think some of the stories are very impressive

  From the Reviews:
  • "Little Black Book of Stories is the ideal primer for anyone who has not yet discovered AS Byatt, and a delight for those who have." - Cressida Connolly, Daily Telegraph

  • "In this wintry, supremely elegant collection, Byatt (Possession) peels back the surface of everyday life--and what she reveals may disturb your sleep." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Little Black Book of Stories is tough and good, stony in all the best ways, vitally not nice. It is her finest collection yet." - Ali Smith, The Guardian

  • "The Green Fairy Book this isn't: the five substantial tales in AS Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories are strictly for grown-ups. (...) There's nothing Victorian or pre-Raphaelite about them, although they often lack the form's charm." - Mary Flanagan, The Independent

  • "These tales, like those in Joyce's Dubliners, seem steeped in the sense that, one by one, we are all becoming shades. Occasionally, such emblematic qualities are worn a little too much on the sleeve: does "Body Art", which deals with a lapsed Catholic, really need lead characters named Becket and Whimple? But Byatt's skill lies in her ability to capture in one story both the fantastical and the entirely human." - Nicola Smyth, Independent on Sunday

  • "Carefully constructed, highly allusive, containing fictional artists and artfully faked "fiction" within the fiction, these five stories are not just meditations on art and its place in the world; they are also thrilling Gothic tales in their own right. A delight for Byatt's longtime readers, they offer a rebuke to her critics: here the very patterning that might weigh heavily in her longer fiction yields a fulfilling substance." - Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Five stories: one little book. It tries to be one of those security-blanket books, like Salinger's Nine Stories, but it needs more monsters. Byatt is fantastic with monsters. If you have any spare monsters, say, in your backyard, please mail them to her. She lives in London." - Laurel Maury, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Indeed, throughout the five stories on offer, Byatt is able to find the right words for the not-quite-right, unblinkingly capturing a sense of the jarring, the startling and the not entirely pleasant. It is a welcome departure for the author, an erstwhile chronicler of folk tales and legends, who this time appears to have her eye on something more edgily modern, more relevant and, therefore, far more intriguing than expected." - Stephen Abell, The Spectator

  • "Told in a deceptively urbane and lightly ironic tone, they unfold a heady fusion of mythology and everyday life, with a strong undercurrent of horror. They are moving, thought-provoking, witty and shocking all at once. (...) The strength of Little Black Book of Stories lies in the way that the fantasy element is yoked so firmly to emotional truths and domestic realities." - Katie Owen, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Two good stories out of five earns a bronze, not a gold, star. (...) But is this bagful of shorts Byatt's best ? I think not." - Daphne Guinness, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "These modern fairytales do not invite the reader to escape into fantasy, but rather re-figure the spiritual and psychological significance of archetypal narratives for our secular times. (...) (A) sophisticated and powerfully realized work, which -- like the Worm, Daisy's Kali installation and Ines's mineral body -- fuses seemingly irreconcilable fragments by means of a bravura performance of imaginative artistry." - Samantha Matthews, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title of this collection suggests, these are dark tales. The horror includes the traditional (a forest creature in the first story), but more of it is domestic, scenes that could be from everyday life. Soundly, and often expertly told, the tales teeter on a verge, the extraordinary craftily blended with the almost mundane. It's an odd mix: some of the stories have fantastical elements and others don't, and the frissons are very different from tale to tale, and that lessens the impact of the collection as a whole. But piece for piece they certainly are of interest.

       The first story, The Thing in the Forest, is almost fairy-tale like in its beginning and end, as two young girls evacuated from London during World War II become fast but only fleeting friends. Venturing into the forest near a house where they are temporarily billeted they encounter an awesome creature, and only decades later do they meet again, both drawn back to the place. The Thing they encountered shaped both their lives, and they must again confront it, each in their own ways, to deal with that one shared, indelible (yet possibly imaginary) experience. This is the sort of thing Byatt does very well, and she does not disappoint here.
       The second story, Body Art, is more grounded in the real. There is an elusive creature here too, a young art student who Dr. Damian Becket takes some interest in. She has volunteered to do some art at the hospital he works at, and she almost literally falls into his hands (off a ladder). He tries to help her, but she's not particularly open to help. Still, a relationship of sorts develops. The detached doctor ("I am not good at people", he admits), barely married any longer, and the struggling student can't escape each other. A generation apart, long suffering (the girl had had an abortion at the hospital a while before, with complications), they find unlikely redemption.
       Byatt layers her narrative well, conveying the complexity of all relationships well, with lives overlapping where much about even those one becomes close to is left unknown and myriad other forces affect actions. Some of the actions and reactions come too abruptly, unconvincing from what we know of these characters -- a danger in the short space of a story, where character often isn't as fully developed as in a novel -- but it's still an appealing fiction.
       A Stone Woman takes the greatest imaginative leap, describing the transformation of a woman who literally turns to stone. Here, even more than in the other stories, Byatt wallows in close description, and she beautifully conveys the connexion of man and nature. "I have problems", Ines admits, but turning to stone ultimately is not a problem but something she eagerly embraces. Odd, but compelling.
       Raw Material focusses on a very amateur Creative Writing class, led by Jack Smollett. His first book had been "snapped up by the first publisher he'd sent it to", the second sold 600 copies, the third and fourth kept getting returned by anyone he submitted them to.
       This particular class contains the usual mix of amateurs, with Byatt playing the comedy surprisingly broadly (and not especially well) -- so for example there's the mother-daughter team, one of whom had just written a story about "The nervous breakdown of a menopausal woman with a beautiful and patient daughter", the other a story about "The nervous breakdown of a feckless teenager with a wise but powerless mother". Only one student has any talent -- but it's not talent the other students can appreciate. Their expectations -- of writing and of reading -- are very different, Byatt explicitly suggesting what is wrong with contemporary popular reading culture. A gruesome twist compounds the judgement, making for an odd tale about the act of writing in this day and age
       With the final tale, The Pink Ribbon, Byatt jumps on the dementia-lit bandwagon, describing the life of James, whose wife is suffering from Alzheimer's. It's been five years since she recognised who he was, and the story describes such things as his brief escape to run errands while a home-help takes care of his wife. "He would have liked to go into the bookshop, but there was no time", harsh reality far from a gentle mistress.
       But at least there's some unreality beyond his wife as well: there's an encounter with a mysterious stranger off the street. There are Teletubbies (is it even possible to conceive of a British Alzheimer's story without a Teletubbies mention any longer ?). It's well written and touching, but that's about all the sense one is left with.

       Little Black Book of Stories is not a balanced collection, but most of these stories do make a strong impression. Byatt writes well and strikes a variety of always convincing tones (except for in the forced parts of Raw Material), and as small entertainments these stories are certainly worthwhile.

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Links:

Little Black Book of Stories: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt was born in 1936. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she is the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She is the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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© 2004-2012 the complete review

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