Some read books for entertainment. Some, for knowledge. Language. For the story. For the emotions elicited. Some like the funnies. Romance. Sleaze. Tear jerkers. I read for entertainment. I like the funnies. I like books that make me think. Not cry. I hate books that depress. And sadly, it seems most award winners are tear-jerkers that more often than not, exploit the misery of others to further their own readership. Human depravity is their calling card. The watch word there is “most award winners”. Sometimes you hit jackpot and come across an award winner, who, despite dealing with dark subject matter that disturbs you at many levels, does not make you despair. The story or stories are beautiful narrations of pragmatic or fantastic ideas and thoughts that, even with the dark background, entertain and excite the reader.
I have never read A.S. Byatt despite having heard much about her, partly because of my aversion to award winners. I finally yielded to the temptation to read her collection of short stories titled “Little Black Book of Stories” with much trepidation, because bad enough, the author is an award winner, worse still, the title reads “black”. Yes, the book was vaguely disturbing. But more by its macabre than anything else. The stories are scholarly, as is the flow of language. Each story has many layers to it, the superficial, apparently fantastic, fairy-tale (albeit grim) to the more profound truths the tales symbolise. The first story (“the thing in the forest”), for example, where two young war-refugee girls, wander into a forest, and see a horrible, smelly creature that gobbles everything in its path, and the vision shapes their entire lives as they split and go their way after the war, seems on the surface to be a chilling, horror story. The symbolism, as I see it, is of war itself as the creature, that obliterates all in its path and alters life in future as well. Some of us let it consume us and some merely shove the terror into the recess of memory to make entertaining stories of it for later. Perhaps the symbolism is in my own head and the author never intended it to be anything more than a horror story, but the success of the story is that it fired the reader’s imagination to make connections possibly unintended. “A stone woman” another such story in the collection, is the fable of a mourning woman, slowly turning into stone inside out – literally. This is a fantastically descriptive story, which can be read just for its beauty without bothering about symbolism and alternate meanings. However, the story does appear encyclopedic in sections, which can put people off by its apparent pretentiousness. Another disturbing, and vaguely comforting story is “The Pink Ribbon” where an aging war veteran finds a way to cope with caring for his Alzheimer-ridden wife Madeleine, by giving life to her alter-ego, Dido, a fall-out of ‘Aeneid’. “Raw Material” is by far, the least impressive story of the collection in that, the premise is interesting and the descriptions exemplary (the author’s love for the language shows), but the story predictable, exaggerated and lame (especially the climax). “Body Art” is another interesting story of human emotions that science is yet to contend with.
The little black book opened up my window to A.S. Byatt. I am now encouraged to read her other works, including her Booker winner, “Possession, A romance”. I am hoping that this book will dispel my mental block to award winners.