When I was in tenth grade, we got a long-term substitute when our teacher had a bit of a nervous breakdown (does everyone have the experience that some teacher has a breakdown? it seems that way to me). Anyway, this substitute made us memorize one poem. I can’t remember why, but she made us do it. I memorized Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” and I still know it – although I hold with those who would choose “ice” as our destruction.
So when I came across A.S. Byatt’s collection of short stories Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, I immediately thought of Frost (note the irony in his name). And these stories read like fairy tales of the way passion and hate can fuel life from the woman who drew a picture of the Biblical Jael to the pool that spawns a spectacular, languid, wanton would-be lover, to the woman who can only thrive in the most cold of climates because her soul is of ice . . . these stories draw you into worlds that don’t exist in our physical planet but abide in our minds.
My favorite stories are “Crocodile Tears,” where a woman simply walks away after her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, and “Cold” in which a desert love builds a frozen castle for his wife who can’t abide the heat. Byatt’s settings make her characters, and while most often she leaves dialogue out of the stories, her characters seem to speak to you through their actions, as if we’re invisible confidants.
I loved Byatt’s Possession when I read it years ago, and Babel Tower kept me enthralled for weeks. But if you’re looking for a piece of reading that’s equally beautiful but a little less daunting, pick up Elementals.
P.S. Don’t forget to comment on my book give-away post for a chance to win.