Byatt, A.S. Elementals. New York: Random House, 1999. ISBN 0-375-50250-5, hc, $21.95.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 36:12 (#213) in December 1999.)
Reviewed by Matthew Scott Winslow
This new collection of short stories by A.S. Byatt is subtitled “Stories of fire and ice.” Returning to many of the themes that she is known for and that garnered her a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye in 1998, Byatt serves up six novellas and short stories that, as the subtitle suggests, explore extremes of character.
In the first story, “Crocodile Tears,” a woman walks away from the life she knows — a life that has suddenly been met with tragedy — and flees to Nimes to try to avoid the grief she feels at her husband’s death, leaving behind her family and seeming not to care. In Nimes she meets up with a Norwegian who also appears to be fleeing pain. Through the ensuing relationship, they both come to grips with how their suffering and the guilt they feel is unique to them, but also through the exploration of myth and history, they find it universal to all.
The most mythopoeic of the stories is “A Lamia in the Cevennes,” which is about an artist whose pool soon becomes home to a fantastic mythical creature. If the artist kisses the beast, she will become the most beautiful woman he has ever known. But the artist refuses and therein Byatt explores the boundaries between artistic vision and true reality.
My favorite of the stories is “Cold,” a fairy tale about an ‘ice woman’ who flourishes in the cold and suffers in more moderate climes. When it comes time for her to wed, she is courted from far and wide, but it is a desert prince who takes her heart. She follows him to the desert and there he manages to create for her a palace of glass, a palace of ice created by fire. The imagery in this story is striking and will remain with you long after you’ve read it.
Present here are all the flourishes that Byatt is known for: a heightened sense of realism (how many other authors can express despondency through the fluffing of a pillow?), lush narrative, and the re-invigorating of old tropes.