“A Stone Woman,” by A. S. Byatt (2003) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.25.2014
Read the story online at the New Yorker.

“A Stone Woman” begins in a quiet haze of sorrow. Ines’ mother has died:

People had thought she was a dutiful daughter. They could not imagine two intelligent women who simply understood and loved each other.

As with many of A. S. Byatt’s protagonists, Ines is an older woman left in a position where society, and she herself, expect little else to come of her. To “solitude and silence” she resigns herself.

But the story turns, and turns, and turns again, impelled by a quiet vigor, a hungry, searching fascination with the natural world. Strangeness proliferates: Ines proliferates, her body sprouting clusters of crystals, nodes and veins of stone.

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.

“By dint of glancing in rapid saccades” – !! Perfect. The story’s language is by turns minutely exacting, and bounding, gusty, electric. It encompasses the wonder of dictionary-language (Ines, again typically for a Byatt character, is a “researcher for a major etymological dictionary”) – hard, crystalline mouthfuls of Latin and Greek (botryoidal, hematite, icositetrahedral) – as well as the mythical, elemental Germanic sounds of gleam, rattle, stride, moss.

Likewise, the story’s emotional focus moves easily from particular quirks of character -

The English scholar that persisted in her said, “What does it mean?”

- out to larger, universal, mythical arcs of movement and transformation. It is a personal and thrilling fairy tale, rough and vital.

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  1. Andy’s avatar

    I’ve always remembered this story; the collection it it’s from, The Little Black Book of Stories, is really stunning. I don’t really care for Byatt’s novels any more (I went through a big Possession phase, and now I kinda hate it…) but her short fiction has always been memorable. I definitely want to check out Ragnarok, though.

    Reply

    1. Emera’s avatar

      Oh noooo don’t tell me yet what put you off of Possession – I still haven’t read it! But once I have, I would love to hear about your falling-out with it, haha. I’ve only read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s eye, most of which I was quite smitten with. (The ones I was less keen on felt a little too buttoned-up or tidy to me.)

      I had forgotten about Ragnarok coming out! Reading M John Harrison’s review of it in the Guardian right now…

      Reply

      1. Andy’s avatar

        I loved Djinn too! Possession is a tour de force, to be fair, and the poetry is fantastic. But I won’t spoil it for you!

        Reply

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