Books by A.S. Byatt

PEACOCK & VINE by A.S. Byatt
Released: Aug. 2, 2016

"Although brief, this is an inspiring homage that forges illuminating connections between two dynamos."
An impassioned dual appreciation of two 19th-century creators who turned their lives into art. Read full book review >
RAGNAROK by A.S. Byatt
Released: Feb. 1, 2012

"Though the cadences are like those of a fairy tale, a narrative seen through the eyes of a child, the chilling conclusion is not."
A multilayered retelling of the end of the world from Norse mythology, framed by the award-winning British novelist's analysis of how myth relates to her own work. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 6, 2009

"Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent in the author's vintage manner."
Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) encompasses the paradigm shift from Victorian to modern England in a sweeping tale of four families. Read full book review >
Released: May 2, 2004

"A stunning, altogether irresistible collection."
With painstaking precision, Booker-winner Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) analyzes the frailty, impermanence, and disturbing complexity of the human body. Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 17, 2002

"Not a perfect work, but an unarguably major one. Byatt's quartet is well worth the time and attention it demands."
The life of the mind and the confusions of the spirit confront one another to often telling effect in Byatt's lavishly orchestrated eighth novel. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 2001

"The overall effect is somewhat slight and rather disjointed, but not without attraction."
Seven essays by novelist Byatt (The Biographer's Tale, 2000, etc.), all ostensibly linked by the motifs of writing and reading fiction set in the past. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 24, 2000

"Not for Oprah's Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded."
An academic who forsakes the realm of concepts and theories for the quotidian world of "things" is the unlikely—and quite likable—protagonist of Byatt's formidably learned latest, which echoes rather loudly her Booker Prize-winning Possession (1999). Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1999

Six rather arbitrarily linked stories (which allegedly explore various "extremes and polarities") from the rococo stylist whose best fiction includes Booker Prize—winning Possession (1990) and the (rather similar) story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1997). Exotic locales and almost oppressively lush imagery dominate even such slight fictions as "Baglady" (set in a vast shopping mall in the "Far East" and redolent, if not reeking, of Muriel Spark); "Jael" (which employs the biblical Apocryphal story of Jael and Sisera to explain a moody commercial artist's tendency "to rejoice in wickedness"; and "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary," a witty parable in which an insubordinate cook is taught by a young artist to cherish even the evanescent glories of her own "Creation." More interesting, and more precisely built on defining contrasts, are the longer stories: "A Lamia in the Cevennes," about an Englishman's retirement to the French countryside to paint—and to find, in his custom-built outdoor swimming pool, aesthetic and other temptations; and (the unfortunately titled) "Crocodile Tears," about a suddenly widowed Englishwoman who escapes to the southern French city of Nimes (drenched in artifact-reminders of its past as a Roman outpost), and a transformative acquaintance with a Norwegian tourist whose burden of loss both reflects and mocks her own: it's a dizzily amusing, oddly seductive tale of cultural and psychological conflict. The best piece is "Cold," a deliciously imagined fairytale whose heroine, the beautiful princess Fiammarosa, unexpectedly departs the invigorating northern clime where she thrives to marry a prince (and expert glassblower) from a barren desert country. Her life is soon indeed imperilled, but the prince's creation of an "artificial world" magically preserves her—and their union. This is a brilliant and charming variation on its announced theme, namely that "Love changes people." An often enchanting further display of Byatt's fluent style and far-reaching imagination. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1998

A solid collection of 37 stories, presumably intended to accompany an earlier volume edited by the late V.S. Pritchett. Byatt has cast her net widely and well, and included such overlooked gems as Graham Greene's "The Destructors," Charlotte Mew's "A White Night," and H.E. Bates's amazingly rich "The Waterfall." Byatt's long Introduction—which might well stand as a capsule history of its subject'sensibly emphasizes "the evocation of the concrete" as a common feature of English (as opposed to other British Isles' or Commonwealth) short fiction, while offering superb concise assessments of classic writers like Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, and Wells. If some of her omissions (especially de la Mare, Lessing, and Angus Wilson) are hard to defend, one is grateful for her unearthing of neglected writers like Arthur Morrison, Malachi Whitaker, and (the other) Elizabeth Taylor. All in all, one of Oxford's best, and another feather in Byatt's richly decorated cap. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1997

Four short fairy tales with a contemporary edge, and one novella-length tale that brilliantly transforms a story of middle- age angst into a celebration of serendipity and sex. Byatt (Babel Tower, 1996, etc.) uses that parallel world of fairy tales—which closely resembles our own in motive, character, and outcome—to explore the sources of hope and imagination. ``The Glass Coffin'' reworks a traditional quest tale as a tailor seeking employment helps a stranger and, as a reward, is given a glass key and certain mystifying instructions to follow that lead him to a beautiful sleeping princess. In ``Gode's Story,'' a young woman is true, while her feckless sailor lover betrays her, only to find his happiness with a new bride short-lived when he sees her among the Dead riding the ocean waves. ``The Story of the Eldest Princess'' is a witty reworking of the quest tale as well as a low-key analysis of the role of fate, choice, and character as a princess steps out of her preordained role in life to rescue her people. And ``Dragon's Breath'' is a wry morality tale about the unsuspected ``true relations between peace and beauty and terror'' revealed when dragons destroy a village. But Byatt is at her best in the novella, about what happens when Dr. Gillian Perholt, in Turkey to attend a conference on stories, is granted the chance to make three wishes, which all come true. Troubled by visions of her mortality and her husband's desertion, fiftyish Gillian buys a dirty but striking old glass bottle and takes it back to her hotel. When she washes it, a handsome Djinn appears, who gives her the younger body she wishes for, makes love to her as she wishes, and after talk, tales, and travels, grants her her third wish. An intelligent detour with an exemplary guide through Keats's ``magic casements'' to fairy land. (Author tour) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 17, 1997

Two discriminating readers invite us to listen in on seven conversations about six important novels by women. Bestselling novelist Byatt and psychoanalyst Sodre cultivate the art of literary conversation. The underlying premise is that literature in general, and the novel in particular, is a unique and important form of knowledge that calls upon its readers to carry on its imaginary world in conversation and discussion. Both Sodre and Byatt are shrewd readers, as well as voluble conversationalists. However, in print the effects are mixed. Their conversations are shapeless, as conversation often is, and the reader only gradually begins to see the emphasis fall on certain themes and ideas that appeal to their imaginations: fear of marriage, the problem of womanly self-determination, the presence of myth and fairy tale, moral consciousness in fiction. These themes float by in the wash of words without ever taking a clear shape. And too often the language, as in real conversation, is woolly and inexact. But perhaps the most limiting circumstance of this book is the admirably sympathetic relationship between Byatt and Sodre. They are so like-minded that what we have is not a dialogue but instead a monologue in two-part harmony. They don't force each other to clarify, defend, and produce persuasive evidence for their views. These objections notwithstanding, there remains enough stimulating observation and thought to hold the attention of those interested in the authors' favorite books (Mansfield Park, Villette, Daniel Deronda, The Professor's House, An Unofficial Rose, and Beloved) or in the novel as a way of knowing the world. Or in Byatt's view—which is aligned with that of Iris Murdoch—``all art but the very greatest is consolation and fantasy, but really great art is a form of knowledge.'' Byatt and Sodre attempt to bring out the knowledge that resides in art alone. Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1996

An ambitious, intelligent work that, while aiming to get Britain's swinging '60s down pat, unfortunately scants the usual fictional elements, putting in their place a mordant and always perceptive historical critique. This third installment in Byatt's planned quartet (after The Virgin in the Garden, 1979; Still Life, 1985) is set in that small, cozy Brit world where everyone knows everyone else because they've all been to prep school or Oxbridge together. They're insular people, smug about their politics, their unbelief, and their intellectual acumen, which, paradoxically perhaps, makes them particularly vulnerable to change. In 1964, as the story begins, Frederica, married to Nigel and the mother of four-year-old Leo, wants to put her Cambridge English degree to use. But Nigel, a quick-tempered male chauvinist, won't hear of it, of course, so after he's roughed her up a couple of times, Frederica flees with Leo to London. There, old Cambridge pals find work for her, and she begins to make a life. Revolution, however, is in the air: Students test the limits, drugs are omnipresent, grammar is under assault, the environment is polluted, nuclear war threatens, and sexual freedom is a given—all of which is crystallized in a work of fiction, Babbletower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time, that Frederica reads for a publisher and recommends. Written by Jude, a homeless vagrant with a pedigree, the novel—chapters of which are excerpted here—graphically describes a dystopia where freedom has reached its ultimate and nihilistic limits. Babbletower, and Frederica's desire to work and raise her child as a divorced woman, define the times, and the lengthy court cases in which the book is banned and Frederica granted her divorce are both fully covered. Nothing is really resolved, though the publisher of Babbletower eventually wins on appeal and Frederica gets her freedom, since what matters is the Zeitgeist, not the characters. Clever, with moments of wit and insight, but a somewhat lumbering dance to the music of time. Not Byatt's best. Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1995

Inspired by Matisse paintings, these three splendid stories (two have appeared in the New Yorker) pay homage to the artist as they offer equally memorable verbal portraits of apparently ordinary lives driven by pain and disquiet. Just as Byatt (Angels and Insects, 1993, etc.) prefaces each story with an appropriate illustration, each also begins on a deceptively simple, even homely note: a middle-aged woman having her hair cut; a mother trying to work at home while she waits for the doctor to check her son's chicken pox; and a woman meeting a colleague for lunch at the Chinese restaurant she regularly patronizes. But it is soon clear that darker forces are at work here. In ``Medusa's Ankles,'' the woman about to have her hair cut recalls how she had first visited the salon because it had a copy of Matisse's Rosy Nude in the window. The decor has recently changed, the Nude is gone, and the narrator wants an especially flattering haircut for an upcoming television appearance. But the stylist is distracted: He must choose between his girlfriend and his wife, who, he says, has ``let her ankles get fat.'' The comment, which evokes painful memories of the woman's lost youth and beauty, leads her to an uncharacteristic but cathartic outburst. In ``Art Work,'' suggested by Le Silence habitÇ des maisons, Debbie, a harassed working mother, relies heavily on her eccentric housekeeper, Mrs. Brown. Meanwhile, her self-absorbed husband, a failed artist who works at home, can't abide Mrs. Brown, but the housekeeper reveals a surprising talent. Finally, in ``The Chinese Lobster,'' a troubled art student's charge of sexual assault leads two lonely academics to critique Matisse's attitudes toward women and art as they lunch, revealing in the process the frightening emptiness of their own lives, symbolized by the haunting image ``of a white room with no doors or windows.'' Like all good art, these paintings of the human heart linger in the mind's eye. Byatt at her accessible—if rather brief—best. Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1993

Two postmodern novellas with Victorian themes that have all the leaden scholarly pretension of that era—and none of the leavening irony that made Byatt's bestselling Possession (1990) so successful a mix of erudition and wit. Taking two intellectually incompatible ideas—Darwinism and spiritualism—of the period, Byatt then sets them up in their quintessential Victorian settings, where they are observed, illustrated, and dissected like the insect specimens of the first novella and found to signify not very much, despite quotes from the greats and the Bible. In ``Morpho Eugenia,'' impoverished naturalist William Adamson, homeward bound from insect-hunting in South America, is employed by a wealthy clergyman-scholar who's trying to write a book that will reconcile his religious beliefs with his scientific interests. Adamson soon falls in love with the clergyman's daughter, the beautiful Eugenia, whom he marries only to find that her behavior is eerily similar to that of some of the insects he's been studying with the help of governess Matty. With the proceeds from his book on ants, Adamson then heads off with Matty to South America, cheered by their sea captain's thought for the day: ``That is the main thing—to be alive.'' The widow of this same captain is one of the protagonists of ``The Conjugal Angel,'' in which a group holds weekly sÇances where she is medium. They meet in the home of Captain Jesse and his wife Emily, Alfred Tennyson's sister and once the fiancÇe of the beloved Arthur Hallam, to whom the poet dedicated that great Victorian icon ``In Memoriam.'' All of which means a great deal of poetry quoted, a great number of spirits consulted, and much speculation about just what Alfred really felt for Arthur—as well as an abrupt ending in which an angel teaches all those present a rather earthly lesson. Too much learning can be a dangerous thing for a novelist who needs to separate the learned monograph from the illuminating tale. Dull and forced. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1992

A collection of previously published essays and reviews (The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, etc.), seemingly more the work of a competent grad student than an imaginative novelist, and sure to disappoint those who enjoyed Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990). In essays about her favorite Victorians (Robert Browning and George Eliot) and moderns such as Ford Madox Ford and William Golding, Byatt, a former lecturer in English and American Literature at the Univ. of London, explores the relations between narrative and religion. These writers, Byatt suggests, vindicate the ``fictive form'' as the appropriate place to resolve the problem ``of the real'' in a postreligious world. For Byatt, Browning is ``a poet who writes of men and women, all separately incarnate, all separately aware of their necessarily and splendidly limited ways of infinite passion and the pain of finite hearts that yearn.'' Eliot's intelligence, she concludes, ``combined thought and feeling in a new form of poetic but ironic realist fiction.'' In perhaps the most accessible and persuasive essay here (``Accurate Letters: Ford Madox Ford''), Byatt describes Ford as a writer who taught us the distinction between the ``great lie'' and ``the hard ideas of truth.'' And a number of her reviews on writers as varied as Toni Morrison, whom she admires, and Barbara Pym, whom she does not (``[Pym] appears gentler than Spark or Weldon but is also infinitely less generous, humane and imaginative'') are intelligent, perceptive, and refreshingly opinionated. Most often confined by narrow academic parameters to lengthy quotes and tentatively advanced ideas, Byatt's rich inventive talents are well served here only rarely. Read full book review >