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 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