Books: Revelling in the scent of cedars and burned fennel

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A S Byatt Chatto pounds 12
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The Independent Culture
This year's chairman of the Booker Prize judges, referring to the final shortlist of six, remarked that amongst them there was no obvious, outstanding masterpiece. Rather a patronising remark, that, a real putdown of all the writers on trial. The learned judges could simply have expressed their pleasure that the year produced such a wealth of interesting and well- written books.

Perhaps it's just as well there is no big, high- status prize offered for short-story collections. The writers are saved from being thrown to the lions and lionisers. In this particular case, opening Elementals, it's the reader who can feel given a prize when such an eminently enjoyable and readable book comes her way.

This is the third collection of A S Byatt's short stories to have been published in this small, pretty format; printed on good-quality paper, in a Bembo-like typeface, the gathered pages properly stitched and bound, with a silk headband, and each new tale adorned with an elegant little frontispiece. Like its two predecessors, The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Elementals gains from this shrewd packaging, which both indicates its suitability for the Christmas presents market and underlines the enjoyable sensuality of the stories. First your eyes and hands can't help caressing the book as a cherishable little object, and then its contents beguile you too.

Part of Byatt's gift as a short-story writer is her obvious relish of the form. As you read, you feel what a good time she is having, how she is letting herself just dive in and play. This is in marked contrast to the novels. In the longer form, with its larger scope for varied narrative voices, she makes space for far more intellectual discussion of themes, and sometimes employs a somewhat teacherly tone. Part of her generosity as a writer is not being able to help telling us how much she knows. But in the novella, or the short story, she relies more on the genres of fairy tale, fantasy and romance, and sweetens the lessons with rich physical detail, lush sensual descriptions of people and places. The hedonist, art-lover and poet in her take centre stage. Another delight of her stories is their unashamed interest in women's lives, even, heaven help us, middle- aged women's lives. Written off by so many male authors, written out of so much male fiction, these women are rewarded by Byatt with all kinds of voluptuous adventures.

People still sneeringly recommend that certain books should not be given to maiden aunts. Maiden aunts are of course mature and experienced women of the world who have decided it's more fun to stay unmarried. Bluebeard's loss is their gain. Marriage is certainly not a bed of roses in Byatt's new tales. The icewoman heroine of the folktale "Cold" is unhappily unrooted by it, the narrator of "Baglady" is dragooned as part of a group of directors' well-groomed wives to go mall shopping, with tragic results, while the slinky fiancee in "A Lamia in the Cevennes" is a monster straight out of Keats. Patricia Nimmo, in "Crocodile Tears", is most unwillingly liberated from her marriage. Her husband unexpectedly drops dead during her half- hour absence in a picture gallery; she's walked off in a temporary huff, disagreeing over a work he wants to buy, and returns to find her life with him over. She flees immediately, smitten, we suppose, by guilt, and ends up eventually in Nimes. The slow unfolding of Patricia's story from then on, the gradual accumulation of detail, make this novella almost a novel. It's not realistic, in the strict sense, more a what-if exploration with dashes of romance. I suspended my disbelief quite happily. I accepted that Patricia, though blocked by inexpressible grief and trauma, could yet respond to the sparkling light, the golden stone and exquisite buildings of Provence with the image-making sensibility, the ravished eye and brain of a happy painter-poet. I thought that she sounded less like the repressed lady she ostensibly is and far more like A S Byatt having a really marvellous time - but I didn't care. It doesn't matter. The heart of this tale is the love affair with a new landscape, with unexpected and beautiful architecture, with all kinds of sensual treats: "There was an excess of pleasure in the simplicity: stars, flames, water, the scent of cedars and burned fennel, the salt of olives, the juicy flakes of the fish, the gold wine, the sweet berries, the sharp chocolate, the warm air." This affectionately told story ends with Patricia dealing with grief and facing the future. There's even a new man thrown in. He rescues her several times from death, tells her lovely stories, and invites her to Norway. The sexiness of all this is nowhere spelt out; it hovers in the wings like the waiters who bring Patricia her subtle cocktails in the hotel bar.

Gratification of an explicitly sexual sort may be delayed in all these stories, even as it is suggested by the pleasures of the prose. A great deal of "Cold" is devoted to long, precise and exquisite descriptions of intricate glass sculptures and magic ice palaces. The painter in "A Lamia in the Cevennes" spends weeks meditating on the blues in his swimming pool, so difficult to capture in paint, as in words. The men in these tales are all wise and good, if a touch too fond of explaining things to misguided women. The female protagonists are rather like Charlotte Bronte's; they do like their knowledgeable male professors; they don't mind being lovingly lectured to. I wished that just once the rescuer could be a woman but it was not to be. Feminism is not an issue here. Byatt's engaging message is that art, curiosity and stories save us. Now read on.