A S Byatt likes to set herself story-telling challenges, and this collection is a tricky one: nearly 300 pages of fairy-tale miracles, princes, quests and once-upon-a-times, all unfeasibly leading up to that "indescribable" Istanbul moment. Even if she pulled it off, these tales could still add up to no more than the genre exercise their twee packaging suggests. The first story is just that - well- constructed, traditional, and transparent as the glass coffin in which its helpless maiden lies encased, waiting to be rescued by the virile hero. Very quickly, your attention starts slipping away from the secret tunnels and magic rocks and into wondering about Dungeons & Dragons and the point of it all.
As if sensing this, Byatt's tone shifts from naive to archly self-conscious, breaking into the story to address "my dear and most innocent readers", then undercutting its Sleeping Beauty ending by mocking the protagonists (who can't decide whether to marry), for "disputing, politely, the moral niceties of their interesting situation". This sort of cleverness sustains the book for quite a while. The next tale, "The Story of the Eldest Princess" is droll, sending its heroine on an epic journey equipped with "an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest". An intellectual, not an explorer, the princess understands fairy tales like the "in- convenient" one she's trapped in, and carefully eschews the reckless zeal of her questingpredecessors. Coming across a talking scorpion with a crushed tail, she listens to its moans about other, less considerate princesses, then makes it the first member of a menagerie of wounded animals, and forgets about her original goal altogether.
However, jokes and nudges against convention can't sustain a whole col- lection of fairy tales, or cut against the form's primary purpose of suspending our disbelief. Byatt's language, which might have made these stories glow and compel on its own, seemslighter and less dazzling, less fantastic than usual - barring the odd vivid image, like a cat "with eyes like cold green jewels".
Then, four stories in, the book grows teeth. "Dragons' Breath", originally written for a project to aid Sarajevo, is a succinct nightmare. It starts amiably, with a pretty village dozing in a bowl of mountains. Then the villagers notice a change going onabove them: the snow-capped peaks are being melted, not by the weather, but by the burrowing of gigantic, boiling worms, their "jaws wide as whales". In relentless slow-motion, the worms come "over the rim of their world, pouring slowly on and down". Noheroes or means of defence emerge as the worms devour their way to and through the village. Some of the villagers die; most just watch helplessly from a nearby wood, where Byatt, like a defeated UN aid worker, tries to contrive a happy ending about strength from adversity.
The title story follows, filling the rest of the book with a strangely charming fusion of Turkish myth and academic merry-go-round. It's 1991, and Gillian Perholt is a professor of narratology who lectures on (surprise) fairy tales, recently abandoned byher husband for a woman "who was 26... that is all you need to know". This is typ ical Byatt territory: waspishly witty and self-referential. But the djinn's sudden appearance - deftly conjured over half a dozen otherworldly pages - cloaks the story's familiar thematic landmarks in a thick mystical fog, making Perholt hallucinate at h er lectern, and sporadically halting her travels around Turkey with confusing epiphanies.
For 50 pages Byatt cuts delicately between Perholt telling and discussing fairy tales and the djinn's mysterious interventions. Then she brings them together in the hotel room, conclusively and hilariously. To impress the professor, the djinn plucks a perspiring Boris Becker from a match showing on a corner television, and sets him down, bewildered, on top of the set. The miracles con- tinue, Byatt's sentences springing the plot with ease from one delicious implausibility to another: Perholt is granted three wishes, and gets her body of 15 years before, an all-expenses trip to give the keynote lecture at a conference in Tor- onto and a promise that the djinn will follow her there.
There he gives a lecture of his own, and the narrative swoops through The Arabian Nights and a labyrinth of more obscure Turkish tales before settling with a provisional parting on the shore of Lake Superior. The story is too hectic for much reflection, but on the final page a theme of a kind emerges: "There are things in the earth... that live a different life from ours... and cross our lives in stories, in dreams, and at certain times..." Maybe, between reading volumes of Victorian ce poetry, A S Byatt watches The X Files.
THE DJINN IN THE NIGHTINGALE'S EYE: Five Fairy Stories by A S Byatt, Chatto £9.99Reuse content