With painstaking precision, Booker-winner Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) analyzes the frailty, impermanence, and disturbing complexity of the human body.
Otherworldly and folkloric motifs link this new collection of five stories with earlier similar volumes (e.g., Elementals, 1999), especially as seen in its opening tale, “The Thing in the Forest.” This introduces two young girls, Penny and Primrose, WWII II refugees, who wander one day from the castle where they’re housed in a forest clearing, where they glimpse a monstrous misshapen form. The “thing,” seemingly “made of rank meat, . . . decaying vegetation, . . . [and] manmade materials,” haunts their imaginations forever after: it’s a powerful image of formative early fears that never leave us. “Body Art,” which interestingly continues the theme of corporeal irregularity and fluidity, details the combative yet mutually sustaining relationship between an emotionally Spartan gynecologist and the female free spirit who provokes and reshapes his emotions. The capacity “to make familiar things look strange” strongly affects an underachieving novelist-writing teacher in “Raw Material.” The breakdown of physical and intellectual form is movingly depicted in “The Pink Ribbon,” in which a retired classics professor tends to his unreachable wife, a mad babbling shadow of her composed former self, and unknowingly invites into their lives the figure that will bring them both release, and peace. And in the superb centerpiece, “A Stone Woman,” a survivor of life-threatening surgery undergoes a “metamorphosis” that takes her beyond her cramped personal world to the alluring landscape of Iceland (“where we are matter-of-fact about strange things”) and a strange, unforeseen and unimaginable liberation. It’s as if Isak Dinesen had magically reappeared, to give us one more unclassifiable baroque masterpiece. Byatt has never written better than in these exquisite stories that, together and thus arranged, assume the shape of a life from childhood through old age and death.
A stunning, altogether irresistible collection.