I relished this book - it has been a first rate read. The five stories need to be treated as a unified entity, and read in sequence, as they lead the imagination into a very rich, superlatively crafted labyrinth of interweaving fable, symbolism, fantasy, folk tale, and good old fashioned story telling (the sort recounted to toddlers by indulgent and highly inventive grandmothers). Realise, too, that these are not adult versions of fairy tales - the work is more sophisticated.
Of course, readers will be captivated by the imagery in these fictional narratives. But you are also going to be surprised by the quality and originality of these pieces in wholly literary terms. The precise telling of the story, the wordcraft that has gone into the sentences and phrasing, is delicious (Byatt's fourth story directly stresses the importance of prose).
And there are the themes explored. Beyond the immediate motifs of childhood, maturity, aging, and so forth, Byatt sets one thinking about what it is to be "adult", what are the limits to conventional thinking?, and do things lies beyond the ordinary physical world? Even human mortality is queried in stories that show magic can be a metaphor for unexplainable processes. Byatt seems to agree with Hamlet, that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of ..." Each story finds that something else is going on behind normality: appearances are utterly deceptive, as the men in the final two stories discover. And then there is the underlying pattern that has women acting as agents for transformation... but you need to read the stories for yourself to trace that thread.
Expect to keep mulling over the ideas raised within this book after you have put it down - it is a joy to read on every level. Of course, from readers' comments I had been anticipating a work like Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber
, but if there are generic similarities, Byatt is a strong writer who stands on her own. And where Carter reconfigures a series of received motifs from folk tales, consciously developing an established formula, Byatt invents her own forms.
If you enjoyed LILITH'S CAVE: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural
and The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories
, then this book is a must for you.