232 pages,
ISBN: 0701168234

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Gordon Phinn

When A.S. Byatt's Possession won the Booker a decade ago, I suspected that I was not the only Canadian to wonder just who this marvellously erudite and spellbinding weaver of worlds was. Someone must have read her earlier work; but a vigorous scouring of acquaintances, colleagues, and librarians failed to uncover a single person.

Byatt's success that year swept clear some shelf space for the paperback reprints new devotees were eager to devour, and we quickly realized we were in the presence of one of the century's finest creators. Some years later, Possession was followed by the equally impressive and daunting Babel Tower. Between those two hugely enjoyable and provocative door-stoppers, we were treated to two slim volumes of stories: the delightfully brief Matisse Stories, in which those old and venerable antagonists, Art and Life, were dusted off and taken for a spin in the country with the top down and silk scarves flying; and The Djinn In The Nightingale's Eye, the sometimes charming, sometimes disconcerting series of, believe it or not, fairy tales. Clever and enigmatic postmodern fairy tales, certainly-but fairy tales all the same.

Perhaps, in retrospect, this was no more surprising than Doris Lessing's plunge into science fiction, but at the time it seemed a bizarre move, for the fairy tale is something of a discarded art form. Despite the rise of the adult fantasy genre, most literati will piquantly shudder at the thought of the genre's creaky conventions. Not so A.S. Byatt, who has absolutely no qualms about beginning with "Once there was..." Employing conventional narratives with postmodern asides, the aesthetic mainspring of the work seemed revealed in the line, "`You are a wise creature,' said the Old Woman. `That is what stories are for.'" Whether one feels this sort of thing to be a sublime insight clothed in irony or a greeting card cliché slapped on with a trowel, Byatt's daring was inescapable.

Whereas The Matisse Stories revealed a writer relevant for the age and dispelled any queasy notions that Byatt might have too large a scholarly nose stuck in the past, The Djinn In The Nightingale's Eye presented an exquisite but traditional teller of tales, who would, just when the reader considered her pegged, bring you up short with some perfectly poised scintilla of postmodernism.

For its part, her new book, Elementals (Chatto & Windus, 232 pages, $28.95 cloth, ISBN: 0-701-168234) attempts to blend its two predecessors. How one calibrates the success of the proposed union will, I feel, divide Byatt fans into two camps: those who applaud her daring and declare it a victory for bravado; and those who feel the fairy tale conventions are more suitable for children, and who would prefer to see the two, like lusty teenagers, kept firmly apart.

The two novellas, "Crocodile Tears" and "Cold", which make up more than three quarters of the text, illustrate this dilemma. In the first, a middle-aged English couple squabble over art in a gallery and the husband promptly dies of a stroke. The wife, fleeing all responsibility of state and family, quickly extracts big cash from her bulging account and disappears, untraceable, to the south of France, where she outfits herself with a new wardrobe and hotel-dwelling lifestyle. During her elaborate orchestration of denial, she meets a Norwegian professor who instinctively recognizes her pain. Their unusual courtship, which explores the deceits with which we fig-leaf our vanities and aspirations, wraps the reader in recognition and sympathy. While we may deplore our heroine's dereliction of duty, we understand all too well her need to run and hide.

"Cold" is the life story of Fiammarosa, a quintessential ice-queen in some far-off land, wooed and won by a prince from the south. The novella challenges the reader only to complete the seventy-page trek to the consummation of her dreams: an icy cave-palace constructed especially for her in the mountains of her husband's desert kingdom. On one level, it is a symbolic portrayal of a much misunderstood woman finally granted her innermost wish; on another, a lengthy and somewhat tedious reprise of the princess-and-the-pea motif-the poor little rich girl always griping for more.

The other, much shorter, stories fall on either side of this divide, and will, no doubt, gather their supporters and detractors. As for myself, I can do no more than pay this book the ultimate compliment: during its eager consumption, I could never conceive of anything more pleasurable than curling up contentedly, engulfed by the ripples of delight lapping over the pages. 


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