Review: ‘Elementals’ by A. S. Byatt

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Title: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

Author: A. S. Byatt

Published: Vintage, 1999, pp. 232

Genre: Short stories

Blurb: A new volume of stories from A. S. Byatt is always a joy, and this one is rich and rare indeed. In the same distinctive format as The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, this collection deals with betrayal and loyalty, quests and longings, loneliness and passion — the mysterious absences at the heart of the fullest lives. A woman walks away from her previous existence and encounters an ice-blond stranger from a secretive world; a schoolgirl draws a blood-filled picture of the biblical heroine Jael; a swimming pool reveals a beauteous monster in its depths. The settings of Elementals range from the heat of Provence in summer to the cold forests of Scandinavia, from chalk-strewn classrooms to herb-scented hillsides, from suburban streets to rocky wilds. A marvelous present for all A. S. Byatt fans, this magical collection will also serve as a perfect introduction to one of our finest contemporary writers. (Goodreads summary)

When, where and why: I picked this book up from a second hand book stall in Winchester last month when I was house sitting for a friend and had run out of things to read.  I started it then, but it once I moved back home it had to wait until I was finished with my other evening book before I could continue with it.

What I thought: As with most collections of short stories, some of these were better than others.  They were well-linked by the theme of isolation and the elemental focus of the stories and I thought the collection was a coherent one.  The prose was beautiful, lyrical and evocative and I look forward to reading some of A. S. Byatt’s longer works (I have Possession on my shelf) as I think that this will be even more evident when the author has a bit more breathing space.  Although the stories are very well-written, I got the feeling that sometimes the short story medium was a little too constraining and Byatt strikes me as an expansive writer rather than a concise one.

Crocodile Tears – Immediately following the sudden death of her husband, Patricia flees to Nimes in the south of France.  There she meets Nils Isaksen, a Norwegian who says he has also lost his wife and is writing a book comparing Norse traditions with those of southern France.  As the encounter each other more frequently, they each face loss in different ways and reach different conclusions as to what they should do.

For me, this is the least successful story in the collection, which is rather unfortunate for the first offering.  At 76 pages, it is rather long for a short story and hence it is much less tight than I would have liked, combining too much detail with too much action and so doing justice to neither.   I do like the idea behind the story, I just think it would make a much better novella as it feels a bit squashed as it is.

A Lamia in the Cevennes – An artist becomes consumed with capturing the blue of his swimming pool.  After it is filled with chemicals to treat for algae, he insists that the contaminated water be drained and the pool refilled at once from the river.  However, the river water brings with it a strange snake-like creature who begs the artist to turn her back into a human.

This story was incredibly visual and vibrant; all the descriptions were full of colour and life, allowing the reader to see the world as it is perceived by the artist.  I enjoyed the way that the usual progression of the fairytale narrative (human meets strange creature; they kiss; creature returns to beautiful human form and they live happily ever after) was truncated in this instance by Bernard’s artistic sensibilities.  He appreciates the Lamia for the unique element of colour she adds to his picture rather than wishing to transform her into something beautiful but ordinary.

Cold - A young and listless princess discovers that she comes alive in the cold when she is tempted out of the castle to dance naked in the snow one night.  She is an ice woman.  However, when the time comes for her to choose a suitor, she falls in love with a prince from a desert country where the sand is made into glass in huge furnaces.  She must find a way to survive away from the ice she loves without melting in this strange land.

This is probably my favourite story in the collection as it is a take on the fairytale, something which I particularly enjoy.  Like Angela Carter, my favourite short story writer thus far, A. S. Byatt does this very well; I particularly enjoyed the stunning resolution.  The descriptions are full of intricacy and wonder and, whereas Crocodile Tears felt very detached, emotions in this story are elemental, mercurial and often phrased as physical processes, making them seem even more powerful.  I love that such a simple story can encompass such complicated themes and emotions.

Baglady - The wife of a company director becomes lost when she embarks on a planned group outing to the Good Fortune Shopping Mall.

This is a welcomely short short story and consequently has a very different pace to the other entries in this collection.  Unlike the others, Baglady depicts a single incident rather than a longer time frame.  It is energetic and abrupt and I enjoyed seeing Byatt writing without the embellishment that I’ve already come to think of as her style from reading the other stories.

Jael – A woman who now makes adverts for a living remembers being taught the Biblical story of Jael in her religion classes at school (a subject which doesn’t really count).  She muses on her school days and what she has brought with her from then to now.

Until I reached the end of this story, it seemed to be meandering without any real direction.  Then along came the sudden, sinister ending which neither narrator nor reader is sure is true or not and suddenly it is clear what all the build up is for.  A. S. Byatt cleverly weaves together the strands of Bible story, artificial schoolgirl rivalries remembered and current conflict in the workplace so that all work to shed different lights on the eventual conclusion.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – A musing on the famous painting by Velasquz, inspired by two disgruntled kitchen maids.

I enjoyed the use of food imagery in this story, the eggs and fishes of Christ and the kitchen maids set against the elaborate dishes taken into the dining room for the upper classes to ignore.  The way the Bible story plays out in the contemporary setting is more explicit than in Jael, but in this circumstance it works well.  I may have to investigate this painting to see if there are any other allusions hidden in the story.

Where this book goes: This book remains on my shelves along with my other short story collections.  I know I’ll definitely revisit Cold and the book is worth keeping just for that one story.

Tea talk: The weather has been turning cold recently and there are days when it feels like we’ve skipped autumn and gone straight to winter (although I will no doubt revise this opinion when winter starts in earnest).  On the one hand, this is definitely a bad thing, but on the other it means it’s the season for smoked teas again.  I’ve been drinking Russian Caravan this week and enjoying its warm flavour.

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