The Pink Ribbon – story review

A few days removed and the concluding story to A.S. Byatt’s collection, The Black Book of Stories, still doesn’t entirely come together for me. You have a man taking care for his demented wife. He torments her in small ways, such as giving her a pink ribbon when she hates the color pink and a hideous green teletubby instead of the red one he knows she would prefer. At the same time, the demented wife talks to “ghosts,” apparent memories of her past that materialize and make themselves real for her and with whom she talks with and about on a daily basis. The husband begins taking out some of his frustrations on the green teletubby, sticking pins through its belly.

Then a mysterious woman shows up on his doorstep on late night, running from an apparent attacker. She is mysterious, sexy, dressed in red, etc. and over this and a following visit, appears to know far more about him and his wife than she should – including that his wife hates pink and would have preferred the red teletubby. And, at least I was, left to wonder if this woman is some sort of materialization of the wife when she was younger and working in “Intelligence” while her husband was fighting WWII or if she is purely a figment of the husband’s mind as he falls into madness or if she is something else entirely, a creature born from thought but not of this world. After all, there are physical reminders of her having been in the apartment such as her lipstick on a drinking glass…or could the lipstick be imagined, too, and the woman who helps the husband be reacting to the presence of the drinking glass and not some imagined lipstick?

For my money, I like the idea that it’s the old man’s conscience coming back to bite him on the proverbial ass. Having the mysterious woman be a figment of his deranged imagination, perhaps also fueled by a growing alcoholism, and a re-imagining of his wife in her youth seems fitting. The wife gets a measure of vengeance for the mistreatment she has suffered at the hands of her husband while the husband is effectively taunted a bit by the image of his wife of better faculties. It would also fit with the theme of his wife suffering from visitations by imagined agents of the past –  a symptom of the wife’s madness coming full circle to visit upon her husband.

Also, it would make the silence of the other helper woman more understandable. It is made out that her and the husband have a fairly close, though non-romantic, relationship. Finding out that he is occasionally being visited by a woman with red lipstick seems to be an item that would be fair to discussion with them. However, noticing an increase in empty drinking glasses, and a growing dementia with the old man would be something that would inspire silence. Her silence seems to be a more appropriate reaction for the realization that his faculties are dimming rather than the realization that he has a visitor.

The pink ribbon itself seems much like a bookmark. In fact, across the cover of Byatt’s book, The Black Book of Stories, is a pink ribbon such as the bookmarks woven into the spines of books past. Taking it as a bookmark, it also seems fitting for a running analogy of lives left off at some point to be picked up again later. As the husband and wife went separate ways to fight the war, one to the trenches and one to the desk and alleys, the impression is that the life they were leading before was never resumed in quite the same way. The returned to their marriage but their roles were effectively inverted (she made more money in him as she continued her spy work) and the old dynamic seemed to be lost. This is not to mention the veil of secrecy that fell over his wife’s life where her work was concerned and how a fair deal of her day to day existence was effectively hidden from him.

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