The Books: “Little Black Book of Stories” – ‘A Stone Woman’ (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

book%2Bof%2Bstories-1.jpgThe next book on the shelf is the last short story collection by AS Byatt, and this one is called Little Black Book of Stories. This is an excerpt from “A Stone Woman”. Fantastic story! Love every word of it!! This, to me, is Byatt at her best. Here you can see the Grimm’s Fairy Tales influence, the Arabian Nights influence – but her stuff is so undeniably British – she makes it all her own. It’s just awesome stuff.

It begins with a death. Ines, a woman in her late 40s early 50s, has just lost her mother. They had lived together – her mother had been very ill for some time and Ines had moved in to help her. This was not a “duty” to Ines – she and her mother had a deep and fulfilling relationship, they were two intellectuals (Ines works for a dictionary, she’s a linguist) – and spent their days in discussions and companionship. Ines resents that nobody believes that she could have such a relationship with her mother. So anyway, her mother passed away. And Ines’s grief is searing. Byatt writes this stuff so well. There are many layers to grief – and one of the layers here is that as long as her mother was alive, Ines was the “younger one”. But once her mother died – it is as though Ines became old in a matter of a moment. And immediately following her mother’s death, Ines becomes ill herself – I can’t remember what it is – but she has to undergo surgery – something is taken out of her. And she has a big sewed-up wound in her stomach. She comes back to her now empty house, for her recovery. Everything is surreal to her. Nothing is normal. She is disoriented, going through the motions. And one day, she is lying in the bath – and washing her wound – and she notices that the soap “clinks” against her skin. She thinks nothing of it. But slowly … over the next couple of weeks … she begins to notice strange things happening to her body. It occurs slowly, gradually – a creeping transformation. She is turning into stone.

I won’t tell you what eventually happens – but as it gets more pronounced, as she is no longer able to speak, and her movements have to become large and striding, no more delicacy or subtlety – she knows she has to make a choice. She needs to find a place where she will rest. A statue. Outside.

It’s a brilliant story – I love it. And the ending is perfect. Just what it needs to be. Inevitable.

Excerpt from Little Black Book of Stories– “A Stone Woman”

One day she found a cluster of greenish-white crystals sprouting in her armpit. These she tried to prise away, and failed. They were attached deep within; they could be felt to be stirring stony roots under the skin surface, pulling the muscles. Jagged flakes of silica and modes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh, making her clothes crackle and rustle. Slowly, slowly, day by quick day, her torso was wrapped in a stony encrustation, like a corselet. She could feel that under the stones her compressed inwards were still fluid and soft, responsive to pain and pressure.

She was surprised at the fatalism with which she resigned herself to taking horrified glances at her transformtion. It was as though, much of the time, hr thoughts and feelings had slowed to stone-speed, nerveless and stolid. There were, increasingly, days when a new curiosity jostled the horror. One day, one of the blue veins on her inner thigh erupted into a line of rubious spinels, and she thought of jewels before she thought of pustules. They glittered as she moved. She saw that her stony casing was not static – points of rock salt and milky quartz thrust through glassy sheets of basalt, bubbles of sinter formed like tears between layers of hornblende. She learned the names of some of the stones when curiosity got the better of passive fear. The flat, a dictionary-maker’s flat, was furnished with encyclopedias of all sorts. She sat in the evening lamplight and read the lovely words: pyrolusite, ignimbrite, omphacite, uvarovite, glaucophane, schist, shale, gneiss, tuff.

Her inner thighs now clinked together when she moved. The first apparition of the stony crust outside her clothing was strange and beautiful. She observed its beginnings in th emirror one morning, brushed her hair – a necklace of beiled swellings above her collar-bone which broke slowlly through the skin like eyes from closed lids, and became opal – fire opal, black opal, geyserite and hydrophane, full of watery light. She found herself preening at herself in her mirror. She wondered, fatalistically and drowsily, whether when she was all stone, she would cease to breathe, see and move. For the moment she had grown no more than a carapace. Her joints obeyed her, light went from retina to brain, her budded tongue tasted food that she still ate.

She dismissed, with no real hesitation, the idea of consulting the surgeon, or any other doctor. Her slowing mind had become trenchant, and she saw clearly that she would be an object of horror and fascination, to be shut away and experimented on. It was, of course, theoretically, possible that she was greatly deluded, that the winking gemstones and heaped flakes of her new crust were feverish sparks of her anesthetised brain and grieving spirit. But she didn’t think so – she refuted herself as Dr. Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley, by tapping on stone and hearing the scrape and chink of stone responding. No, what was happening was, it appeared, a unique transformation. She assumed it would end with the petrifaction of her vital functions. A moment would come when she wouldn’t be able to see, or move, or feed herelf (which might not matter). Her mother had not had to face death – she had told herself it was not yet, not for just now, not round the next corner. She herself was about to observe its approach in a new fantasti form. She thought of recording the transformation, the metamorphic folds, the ooze, the conchoidal fractures. Then when “they” found her, “they” would have a record of how she had become what she was. She would observe, unflinching.

But she continually put off the writing, partly because she preferred standing to sitting at a desk, and partlly because she could not fix the process in her mind clearly enough to make words of it. She stood in the light of the window morning and evening, and read the stony words in the geological handbooks. She stood by the mirror in the bathroom and tried to identify the components of her crust. They changed, she was almost sure, minute by minute. She had found a description of the pumice stone – “a pale grey frothy volcanic glass, part of a pyroclastic flow made of very hot particles; flattened pumice fragments are known as fiamme.” She imagined her lungs full of vesicles like the frothy stone, becoming stone. She found traces of hot flows down her own flanks, over her own thighs. She went into her mother’s edroom, where there was a cheval glass, the only full-length mirror in the house.

At the end of a day’s staring she would see a new shimmer of labradorite, six inches long and diamond-shaped, arrived imperceptibly almost between her buttocks where her gaze had not rested.

She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals, breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as a desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john. Her metamorphosis obeyed no known laws of physics or chemistry: ultramafic black rocks and ghostly Iceland spar formed in succession, and clung together.

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