A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’
As many of you know (and I feel like I say this more than is probably warranted), I have something of an apathetic relationship with A.S. Byatt. This apathy is despite my very best, very genuine efforts to like her. I struggled through Possession; I ultimately loved it, but still feelt grumpy about how I had to force myself through the first half to get to the luminous second half. And I plodded through The Biographer’s Tale, mentally willing it to be something better and different from what it was. Again, I ultimately appreciated the book, this time mostly for her commentary on academia, but I remained A.S. Byatt’s sulky acolyte.
Enter The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Recommended to me as the ideal Byatt for a grudging Byatt reader (me on my best days), The Djinn was nothing short of delightful. Finally I was able to see for myself that which I had formerly taken on faith from true Byatt fans: Byatt’s remarkable imagination, her ability to masterfully weave a tale, and her engagement with the very tradition of story-telling.
The Djinn is, perhaps to its benefit, short, although I definitely could have pictured myself skipping through more stories of the kind contained in its pages. It is a collection of fairy tales, but not the ones we all know retold—this is no Ella Enchanted for adults. Instead, Byatt creates her own fairy tales. They are full of vim and whimsy and fit perfectly into the established fairy tale canon familiar to readers of Grimm and their ilk. At the same time, Byatt’s stories maintain their own originality and evident intelligent outsider’s perspective on that very canon, creating something of a unique fairy tale experience that looks both inward and outward on itself.
Reading The Djinn was akin to a religious conversion for me as I at long last found myself smiling over an A.S. Byatt’s book and even enjoying it. I highly recommend this short, pleasant read for anyone else desperately wishing they could only “get” Byatt and also for those with no Byatt preferences at all, but a love of expert tale-weaving.