Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

A. S. Byatt, Author Random House (NY) $21.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-375-50250-7
Brilliantly mingling reality with the surreal atmosphere of folktales and fairy tales, Byatt follows The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye with an equally virtuosic and beguiling collection. The subtitle is the key to the oppositions that inspire these six stories. They teem with contrasts between inexplicable compulsions and societal norms, the extremes of love and hate, the mysterious tension between the rational and the mystic, and between the creation of art and the demands of daily life. Byatt's meticulous control of language gives these narratives a visual and tactile dimension that's almost palpable. Permeated with descriptions of colors, temperatures and atmosphere, full of sensuous imagery, each is an immersion in a richly imagined world. A compulsion to flee from the reality of her husband's dead body sends the protagonist of ""Crocodile Tears"" to sun-drenched Nimes, where she meets a man from Norway who is researching folktales common to both regions. Slowly and agonizingly, each regains the ability to deal with loss. In ""Cold,"" Fiammarosa, the princess of a mythical kingdom, can exist only in a frigid atmosphere, but she marries a prince from a desert realm where burning sand is spun into glass; the contrast--and the eventual mingling of the two polarities--is conveyed in passages of gorgeous description. The protagonists of most of these stories work in the creative arts or have strong ties to literature. (Interestingly, the central character of the one disappointing tale, ""Baglady,"" a nightmarish scenario that lacks resolution, does not.) ""The world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it,"" says a painter, one of the characters in ""Christ in the House of Martha and Mary."" Byatt conveys this conviction via an unfettered imagination, an intense lyricism combined with distilled and crystalline prose, and an astute grasp of the contradictory impulses of human nature. Six illustrations. Author tour. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
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