The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt

onceup8200 small This is the fourth book I’ve read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge that is still running until the 21st of June. The first book was The Golem and the Djinni (and I liked it very much), and even though I don’t know much about jinni or djinni as Byatt calls it, coincidentally or not, here I am, reading a book that has this magical creature yet again withing its pages.

There are five short stories in this book. The first four are just that, short, but the last one which gives the name of this book is quite lengthy.

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye The Glass Coffin is about a tailor who goes out into the world to find his luck. He meets a little grey man who gives him shelter for the night in exchange for helping with house chores. The tailor cooks, feeds the animals who also live in the house, and in return for his good work and kindness, gets to choose one gift out of the three the little grey man is offering.

“You have chosen not with prudence but with daring”, says the little grey man, and the tailor sets off on his way. His choice will make him face a difficult challenge, but guided by optimism and courage, the tailor will have to let go of his fear in order to fully experience the life-changing adventure. He sees a beautiful glass coffin, has to confront an evil magician, and dispel a terrible curse. It’s a nice little story, beautiful and quite straightforward.

Gode’s Story is also about a man, this time a young sailor, who’s in love with the miller’s daughter. It’s a complicated love story, full of symbolism that would be difficult to explain without giving away too much. It reminded me of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, because it takes place near the sea and it involves a lot of waiting. I’ve enjoyed this as well but not as much as the first story.

The Story of the Eldest Princess is about three sisters, princesses “in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains”. One by one, they go on a quest to bring back the blue color of the sky which had changed to other shades. The eldest princess meets a scorpion, a toad and a cockroach on her way; she helps them and they return the favor. This has echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but is also a story within a story and by the end of it I felt trapped, not knowing what to believe. The abrupt ending left me confused.

Dragon’s Breath is about a family with three children, Harry, Jack, and Eva, who grow up on tales about dragons. Life in their village is boring for the three siblings and they all dream of more exciting things, of adventures and castles and riches within their walls. And one day adventure comes but not in the way they thought it would, and it changes their lives and their perspective on things.

“Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.”

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is the last story and it takes up more than half the book. I loved the first passage – a brilliant description of modern times told in a fairy tale way, one of those paragraphs that echoes in the mind for a long time after the story has ended. Its beauty spills into the rest of the story but somewhere along the thread of this tale I became bored and wished for something more exciting to happen. In a way I was like the three siblings in the previous story, impatient, wanting adventure, excitement. And just like them, I got my wish, but I had to wait a while.

This is the story of a woman narratologist, middle aged, successful in her career, who travels a few times a year to conferences where she meets like-minded academics and they listen to each other discourse on the history of fairy tales and legends and such. This is by far the most academic story in this collection – references and analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s plays, Greek myths, the “Thousand and One Nights” and the origins of various fairy tales made the story quite interesting up to a point. There are plenty of details that help make the reader familiar with the heroine’s life, her feelings, her hopes. There are also a few stories woven into this tale, of Patient Griselda, of Gilgamesh, bits of history about Turkey, where the woman visits for one of her conferences, and where she buys, in a bazaar, a curiously shaped bottle which she will later discover, houses a djinn.
The bottle could be made from “nightingale’s eye”, a famous Turkish glass from the 19th century, she is told, and because she is a collector of glass paper weights, she buys it. That’s when the real adventure begins. Her first meeting with the djinn involves a funny little part about a tennis match, which was quite amusing to read, and also endless philosophical discussions.

Byatt’s prose is anything but simple and in this last story its construction is intricate, layered, there are vivid descriptions of colors and smells, of sensuality, and it pulls the reader right in from the first sentence. It is also the kind of prose that you have to work for to fully appreciate, but the reward is well worth it. The beginning was interesting, but I felt a little disappointed with the way things were progressing. The appearance of the djinn brought back the interesting element and it never slacked off until the end. This was my favorite story along with The Glass Coffin.

“Being inside a bottle has certain things – a few things – in common with being inside a woman – a certain pain that at times is indistinguishable from pleasure. We cannot die, but at the moment of becoming infinitesimal inside the neck of a flask, or jar, or a bottle – we can shiver with the apprehension of extinction – as humans speak of dying when they reach the height of bliss, in love.”

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March, 2014

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15 Responses to The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt

  1. FictionFan says:

    Great review! I’ve only read one book of Byatt’s – The Children’s Book, and to be honest I hated it. I abandoned it halfway through, which is unusual for me. It was a combination of too many references – a kind of ‘look at how clever I am’ approach – combined with the fact that the story never seemed to be moving along. I suspect her style may work much better in this short story format – your review certainly suggests that might be the case. Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Her prose can be challenging and it does work better in shorter form. Sorry to hear you didn’t like “The Children’s Book” – somehow I thought, because of the title, that it wouldn’t be a complicated one (how silly of me) but I should have known better.
      A few years ago I read “Possession” – it was not an easy read, especially the poems, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

      She does tend to veer to the academic side (it certainly helped that I knew Gilgamesh but felt left out because I haven’t read Paradise Lost). Her descriptions are quite vivid, this is one of the best parts of the book, and the conversations between the jinni and the woman quite interesting and thought provoking.

  2. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! Was very much looking forward to reading your review 🙂 Glad to know that you liked the book. ‘The Glass Coffin’ looks wonderful and so does ‘Dragon’s Breath’. The title story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ also looks wonderful – it sounds like a beautiful, literary fairytale. I think Byatt has written a novel here 🙂 I love Byatt’s prose though some readers might find her prose not very accessible (I myself was so intimidated by‘Possession’ and so didn’t read the book for a long time, though I had it with me for years). I have been recommending ‘Possession’ to my book club friends for a while, but they don’t seem too enthusiastic about it. So glad to know that her prose is in full display in this book. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      Are you planning on reading this for the Once Upon a Time event?
      I admire Byatt’s prose even if I sometimes can’t understand everything. With Possession it wasn’t so difficult to like because it was mostly a love story and I can overlook a lot of things if it’s a love story. 🙂 I did skip a poem or two, though – I always wondered how was she able to combine poetry and prose so intricately in the story.
      ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ is a “literary fairy tale” – very well said. I hope you enjoy the book when you read it.

      • Vishy says:

        Yes, yes! I am planning to read ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ soon 🙂 Those poems in ‘Possession’ were the ones which kept me away from the book for a long time. But once I started reading I loved the book.

        • Delia says:

          Looking forward to the review!
          It’s great that you were able to enjoy Possession. You know, while reading it I thought the poems were written by the poets mentioned in the story. I had no idea it was Byatt’s doing all along.
          I’d like to read more of her work someday.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    Great post Delia.

    This sounds really good to me. The first stories that you describe seem to have a folklore like feel to them.

    The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye sounds like something that I really like, I love stories that reference and delve into other literature. The passage that you quoted at the end is fantastic and is worth pondering.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      I think you might be right, the first two stories could be based on folklore. I feel like I should know the stories, but apart from the obvious Snow White reference, I can’t seem to think of any other fairy tale.
      You would probably enjoy the last story the most, but if you do read the book maybe you can shed some light on “Gode’s Story”. I have a theory, but to talk about it would be to bring spoilers into discussion so I’d rather not.
      I liked that passage too, the way she describes it makes it really believable.

  4. Priya says:

    I always find Byatt’s writing very layered, I’m never sure if I’ve understood every meaning it holds. My favourite collection is the much darker Little Black Book of Stories, which I read last year. Have you read it? I liked reading your review of this book, especially what you thought of the title story – I couldn’t agree more! The two from Possession, of course, are fabulous. But the one I loved the most was The Story of the Eldest Princess and the way it played on the stereotypical ‘roles’ of characters in fairy tales.

    • Delia says:

      You’re not the only one who feels the same, Priya, but even if I can’t understand everything in a story I can still appreciate its beauty.
      I haven’t read Little Black Book of Stories, it sounds so secretive, I’ll see if I can find it.
      The two from Possession – are you referring to “Gilgamesh” and “Paradise Lost”? If yes, I’m afraid my comment must have been a bit misleading, I was referring to “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and I have no idea if they’re also in Possession, I can’t remember details.

      • Priya says:

        Oh, I’m sorry, it was my comment that was misleading, actually. I missed a word; I meant the “two stories* from Possession.” As far as I remember the first two stories in this collection were originally from Possession. And they were fabulous! Sorry for the confusion. 🙂

        • Delia says:

          Ok, now I’m really confused, Priya. “Possesion” is a novel about two academics who research the work and secret love life of two famous fictional poets who lived in the Victorian era. It’s not a short story collection – and my memory is either very bad or we are discussing two different books.
          I don’t have the book at the moment but I hope to get it back this weekend and shed some light on this mystery. 🙂

  5. Katherine says:

    I’ve been waiting for your review of this one. Now, even more, I want to read it! I’m not familiar with Byatt, but her prose sounds a little puzzel-y, which can be fun when I’m in the right mood.

    • Delia says:

      I hope you enjoy this one, Katherine. It can be sophisticated and challenging at times but still good. An excellent choice if you’re in the right frame of mind and you have patience to take it slowly.

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