Although billed as "fairy tales for grown-ups" like the author's earlier collection, THE DJINN IN THE NIGHTINGALE'S EYE, fantasy plays a major part in only one of the five longish stories in this book, and two are entirely realistic. But they are connected nonetheless by a strong sense of the fabulous, for all five are about the making of stories themselves, or the ways in which art is hewn out of life.
Sometimes literally so. The central story, "A Stone Woman," features a middle-aged woman who feels herself turning slowly into stone, and her friendship with an Icelandic sculptor engaged in the reverse process, of finding the life hidden in rocks and boulders. The woman's observation of her own transformation shows Byatt's writing at its most iridescent: "She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals, breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john."
Compare the simplicity with which the book opens: "There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest. The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety-pins, and they carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas-mask." As the simple details pile up, Byatt takes us back, not just into childhood, but the specific childhood of Londoners of our generation at the start of the Blitz. Rather at C. S. Lewis does at the start of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, she creates a context of dislocated reality, in which fabulous things can happen. Lewis's children grew up and had to leave Narnia behind, but Byatt's two schoolgirls are affected for the rest of their lives, though in different ways. One seeks refuge in objectivity and becomes a scientist, the other becomes a storyteller, but both feel a strong need to revisit this first magic at least once in later life.
In "Raw Material," a teacher of creative writing praises the work of an older student of extraordinary talent, but is ignorant of the real-life circumstances that give rise to it. In "The Pink Ribbon," the husband of a woman suffering from senile dementia (itself a form of story-making), receives a surprise visitor who persuades him to rewrite the narrative of his marriage from another perspective -- a situation not unlike the ending of Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT. And in "Body Art," a male gynecologist strikes up a friendship with a homeless art student who is creating Christmas decorations for his hospital. But what begins as an artistic debate gradually begins to invade real life, eventually taking a physical form that leaves both of them changed.
These are five varied stories that will amuse, challenge, move, and chill their readers by turns, leaving them above all with a sense of wonder at the mysterious human power of telling stories -- especially when the voice is that of such a master as A. S. Byatt.