Reviewed by DAVID LARSEN
Don't say she didn't warn you. A.S. Byatt's most recent novel was the final volume in a series she'd been working on for 25 years - a massive, complex series, with so many little sub-plots and trailing bits of narrative it was very hard to see how she could bring it all to a good conclusion.
In the very first scene of this final volume, we find a woman reading her friends the last chapter of a massive, complex story she's been working on for years.
"That isn't the end," the youngest of them wails. "We've waited and waited and waited to know these things ... There are good ends, and this isn't one ... "
A pre-emptively self-reviewing novel: Byatt to a tee. And for her next move, she releases a book of short stories which offers her readers not one, but five opportunities to echo: "That isn't the end!"
You could easily believe Byatt decided in advance that, since she was going to get "Where's the closure?" reviews for the final act of her magnum opus, she'd follow up with a selection of stories designed to prove that closure isn't everything.
This quintet of stories make that point nicely. They vary in strength, and none ranks with Byatt's very best, but their ambiguous endings are a feature rather than a flaw. The two most impressive - a passionate, clear-eyed tale of a not-quite love triangle, and a terrifyingly straightforward depiction of a couple facing old age and dementia - each end suggestively but inconclusively leaving the reader haunted by all the things that might happen next.
By the same token, the less satisfying stories here fall short not because their endings undermine them in retrospect, but because, for one reason or another, they never quite gain traction while you're reading them.
A woman finds release from grief by turning slowly into stone. A creative writing teacher has an unpleasant surprise while trying to get to know the only talented pupil in his class. Two girls venture into the forest, and meet something horrible. There are good moments in these pieces, and the last in particular contains the seed of something gut-wrenchingly powerful, but each in a different way feels forced, as though ideas were being grafted on to characters for the sake of making a point.
As the title hints, these are dark, dark stories which, considering this is a Byatt collection, you could take as a promising sign. The only really unconvincing portion of her long-running Frederica Potter quartet referred to above, are the chapters in the second book where Frederica is a young undergraduate, footloose, fancy-free and, theoretically, having the time of her life. Byatt just doesn't do fancy-free.
By contrast, the bits dealing with the death of family members, Frederica's abusive marriage, her husband's attempt to win full custody of their son, and so forth, are searing.
And consider her other short fiction. Her best collections are The Matisse Stories, especially the story about suicide, and Angels and Insects, the first half of which is a lovely, uplifting near-fantasy about incest and a doomed marriage. This is a writer who finds light in dark places.
Case in point: a blow-by-blow synopsis of the two stories I loved from this new book would leave you convinced they should break the heart of any reader. In reality, both of them - even the grim end-of-life one - have a spark to them, a conviction that by seeing life clearly, you redeem it.
Reviewers have a terrible habit of serving up equivocal judgments on Byatt, as though we're all too intimidated by her obvious intellect to deliver a simple "I didn't like this much".
Her last three novels were ho-hummed to death, both in New Zealand and internationally, though I would have been sorry to miss any of them. So it's annoying that I'm forced to add my own verse to the on-going hymn of mild critical disapproval, but there it is: this is not a completely successful collection. Still, it contains gems, and you should read it.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus