A.S. Byatt,
Elementals: Stories
of Fire and Ice

(Random House, 1999)

A.S. Byatt's 1998 collection of fairy tales, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, was one of the most delightful collections of the last decade. Her 1999 follow-up, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, is more of a mixed bag, both qualitatively and thematically, but if the rough parts of this six-story collection fall below Byatt's normal standards, the gems shine as brightly as anything she has written.

The collection begins, unfortunately, with Byatt's weakest (and longest) entry, "Crocodile Tears." Patricia Nimmo and her husband have a petty argument in a gallery, shortly after which he drops dead. She flees to a small bullfighting town in France to mourn (or, more accurately, to avoid mourning), where she encounters Nils Isaksen, a fellow mourner. Alas, Isaksen never comes across as a complete character, and as Patricia is learning to despise him for saving her time and again, we are learning to be bored by him. Only when he admits to a truly despicable act does he start to appear human and interesting. Seventy-five pages of Byatt prose is always going to be well-written, but her neglect of plot hamstrings the potential of this tale.

"A Lamia in the CŽvennes," yet another tale of someone escaping to France, also suffers from an unlikable character, although Bernard Lycett-Kean is clearly meant to be a boor. Lycett-Kean, a British painter, moves to France to get away from Thatcherite England, and soon becomes obsessed with his swimming pool's odor and color, eventually filling it with river water. In the process, a lamia gets trapped in the pool, and promises our hero great love and happiness if he'd but kiss her. A consummate painter, he insists upon keeping her as she is until he captures her snakelike beauty on canvas. If the ending falls flat from predictibility, Byatt's examination of the mind of an artist can't be faulted. Lycett-Keen's artistic quests make him "happy, in one of the ways human beings have found in which to be happy," and her examination of his obsessive mind make readers happy in yet another way.

The story most written in the classic fairy-tale style, "Cold," tells of a woman born as an ice maiden, and her love for a man of the desert. For all the fairy-tale trappings, Byatt spins a wonderfully modern examination of the inadvertent harm men can do women, and the promises everyone makes to themselves of everlasting happiness. For all the tragedy the ironically-named Fiammarosa endures, this is, at its core, a happy and charming tale.

"Baglady" is a surprising, and brilliant, change of pace. Here, Byatt presents a horror story in which a woman gets trapped in a mall. Although the messages may not be original, Byatt's short but effective look at narcissism and capitalism is wittily told, and it's nice to see a member of the literary elite (other than Joyce Carol Oates) embrace a genre that so many greats toiled in a century ago.

"Jael," a overlong vignette in which an advertising executive ruminates on unexplained betrayal, is the weakest story in the collection. Byatt seems to have been attempting to capture something of Barbara Kingsolver in her writing style and theme here (she even swipes the not-truly-false memory concept from the latter's Animal Dreams), but she fails miserably to hit it. As a part of a novel, this might have some potential, but here, it's fifteen pages of filler.

The final tale, "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary," enters Joanna Scott's territory of historical character studies, and does so wonderfully. This is a sweet tale of the two serving ladies who modeled for Vel‡squez's painting, particularly Dolores, the model for Martha, and her acceptance of the hand that life has dealt her. All of the themes Byatt has explored throughout the book -- food, art, growth -- converge in this near-perfect ending to Elementals. Gems like this tale and "Cold" make slogging through some of the weaker items worth the effort.

[ by Adam Lipkin ]

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