If ever you were a lover of fairytales, of sleeping princesses and dragons woken from deep slumbers, of three sisters and genies in bottles; if you don’t mind a modern take on traditional folksy tales without losing the warm, fireside coziness of said tales, you should pick up A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.
If the title alone doesn’t grab you, the stories will. In this collection of five tales, Byatt presents her reader with stories that may elicit faint recollections of books read as a child, but which take some unorthodox departures from the templates of yore, most blatantly illustrated by “The Story of the Eldest Princess” (every older sister should read this one).
I enjoyed the title story but my personal favorite was “Dragons’ Breath.” The dragons here bear no resemblance to the proud, regal creatures depicted in cartoons and in Medieval art. My favorite quote in the book is also taken from this story:
Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.
The title story is set in modern times, mostly in Turkey. It mixes academic essay, history, mythology and modern fiction, taking the three wishes trope and turning it into something unexpected as the relationship between an English narratologist and a centuries-old djinn develops. Byatt’s voice in this story is exceptionally strong. This was one of few times where, as I was reading, I distinctly sensed the author’s personal story and personality beneath the fiction. This wasn’t a bad thing at all. What I liked best about the title story was getting a rare taste of nonwestern mythology. It makes me want to read more nonwestern stories, alerting me to the fact that my reading lists are grossly limited to western tales. This needs to change.
If anyone has recommendations for mythological, fairytale, or fantasy fiction from a nonwestern perspective, please do make your recommendations in the comments section (other than One Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights, which I plan to pick up—it was over my head as a kid).