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Short works representative of Byatt’s beautifully evocative prose.

A career-spanning selection of short stories from one of England’s distinctive voices.

Byatt is known for her novels—especially the Booker Prize–winning Possession (1990)—but the short story format suits her beautifully as well. She favors adjective-spangled cascades of images, excavates the dictionary for rare specimens, and sends iambs and anapests cavorting across the paragraphs. A little of this can go a long way (though, as the novels demonstrate, sometimes a lot can go even further). These stories, selected from periodicals and previous collections, present compact versions of her favored themes, preoccupations, strengths, and occasionally weaknesses, and they’re short enough that her densely decorative prose rarely grows wearisome. As readers of Possession and Angels and Insects (1993) know, she has an affinity for the Victorian era; in “Precipice-Encurled,” an ambitious young painter falls in love with the young lady he’s sketching before losing more than just his heart as he pursues a visual idea inspired by one of Monsieur Monet’s new paintings. Disdaining the austerity of modernism, Byatt leaps forward to postmodernism, with its framing devices and art about art. In “Raw Material,” for instance, a pair of exquisite descriptions of Victorian housework—“How We Used To Black-Lead Stoves” and “Wash Day”—are enclosed in a semisatirical melodrama about a creative writing teacher and his students. Many of the stories contain jeweler’s-loupe views of artists and art, whether the artists in question are sculptors, painters, or cooks. Many of the stories address classic feminist questions about women’s work: To what extent are women free to choose how to express their creativity, and how is their work valued? Not all of the stories have aged well; in “The Chinese Lobster,” Byatt’s signature lyrical exoticism is not so charming when she applies it to the proprietors of a Chinese restaurant and the food they serve, and a Dean of Women Students unquestioningly accepting the word of a Distinguished Visiting Professor over that of the graduate student who has accused him of rape feels rather different in the post–Me Too era than it must have to its 20th-century readers. Some of the best stories in the collection are fairy tales or fantasies; in “A Stone Woman,” for example, a woman in mourning for her mother turns to stone—literally.

Short works representative of Byatt’s beautifully evocative prose.

Pub Date: Nov. 23, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-32158-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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