BOOK REVIEW / Matisse: All the nudes that's fit to print: Michele Roberts on the bright colours that decorate the new set of stories by A S Byatt. 'The Matisse Stories' - A S Byatt: Chatto, 9.99 pounds

For some time A S Byatt's fiction has dwelt among the Victorians. Possession provided a highly evocative representation of 19th-century poetry and prose, while the two novellas in the succeeding volume, Air and Insects, explored that century's forms for fantasy, romance and elegy. Moving back into the 20th century, these new stories, while concerned with the modern, in terms of their subject matter still pay homage to the kind of realism perfected a hundred years ago.

They establish a solid, believable world. They demonstrate a trust in language, that words really do point to something out there that we can all agree exists. They employ reliable narrators, who don't get up to postmodern tricks and vanish in puffs of smoke but but who try their hardest to give us the facts and the feelings, to persuade and convince. The reader is allowed to relax, though our expectations are sometimes subverted.

The stories open out like a triptych, hinged together by their common inspiration: the paintings of Matisse, and, in particular, the female bodies they celebrate as vehicles for colour and forms, colour as form. In the first story, Susannah, a linguist, chooses a hairdresser because she sees a painting through the plate glass of the shop window: 'The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall.'

Robin, the painter at the centre of the second story, is directly inspired by Matisse and keeps a table of 'fetishes' to remind him of the master's purity and passion: 'What they have in common is a certain kind of glossy, very brightly coloured solidity. They are the small icons of a cult of colour.' In this tale, Matisse leaps off the canvas and is re-embodied in surprising form. The third story circles around the female responses to Matisse's vision summed up in Baudelaire's phrase: luxe, calme et volupte. Byatt explores one character's assertion that: 'Feminist critics and artists don't like him because of the way in which he expands male eroticism into whole placid panoramas of well-being.'

Like Matisse, A S Byatt loves colour. On one level these stories are simply a rapturous ode to the way that language can try to work as paint does. There are litanies to colour: 'damsons, soots, black tulips, dark mosses . . . palest lemon, deepest cream, periwinkle, faded flame'; 'the salon was like the interior of a rosy cloud, all pinks and creams, with creamy muslin curtains here and there, and ivory brushes and combs, and here and there . . . a kind of sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the rosy nude spread herself'; 'grass-green, golden-green . . . sunny-yellow, butter-yellow, buttercup-yellow'. There are bravura lists: 'the colours of the crabs are matt, brick, cream, a grape-dark sheen on the claw-ends, a dingy, earthy encrustation on the hairy legs. The lobster was . . . blue-black and glossy.' There are passages where colour builds up background and accentuates personality: 'Shona McRury wears topaz earrings, little spheres on gold chains, that exactly match her eyes, and an olive silk suit, with a loose jacket and a pleated skirt, over a lemon- yellow silk shirt . . . reinforced by a subtle powdering of olive and gold shadow shot with a sharper green, almost malachite.'

This is prose working precisely and elegantly, with quick deft brush-strokes. The beauty of the writing is so pleasurable that it's a shock to realise that the stories are about not only luxe, calme et volupte but also about cruelty, destruction, selfishness, dishonesty and self-annihilation. Under their calm and lovely surface, rendered in a heightened naturalistic way, something wilder and less susceptible to order and reason is going on. Susannah, the placid lady patiently listening to her self-obsessed hairdresser's twitterings about his mid-life crisis and choice of young lover as opposed to ageing wife, suddenly sees red and finds the courage to tear down his shrine to his own vanity. Sheba Brown, in the second story, having endured the childish petulance and monstrous selfishness of her employer's artist husband, suddenly reveals herself as an iconoclast and creator of extraordinary artworks. Both of these stories work like fairytales, embodying wishes that women no longer very young and not very beautiful can carry off outrageous rebellious behaviour without being labelled hysterical and punished as witches. They display generosity and compassion towards their female protagonists, whose dilemmas are rendered with a pleasing irony and humour.

Perhaps as a deliberate contrast to this optimism and sunniness, the third story is altogether more sombre. It reads less like a story than a dialogue set up to convey certain anxieties about feminist art practice and art history. The feminist baddie certainly has the dice loaded against her. She writes badly and can't spell, is anorexic, falsely accuses her male teacher of sexual harrassment and attempted seduction, is ugly and dirty. The phallic male teacher-artist - 'very tall and very erect - columnar' - blows away any pretension of ugly and neurotic feminists to understanding the power and beauty of Matisse. The woman tutor he's lunching with, in order to put his side of the sexual harassment accusation before official acton is taken, is supposed to be a Dean of Women's Studies yet seems quite ignorant of the subtleties of her subject.

The real heart of the story lies elsewhere. The picture of certainty it gives is suddenly pulled awry by an image of female friendship shot through with anguish, a terrifying image of the death of a beloved daughter and of the resulting slow decay of the mother. Some deep theme of reparation to loved and lost female bodies seems to be struggling up through the shining colour-filled surface of the prose; bodies painted on canvas or touched in real life. But it emerges too subtly for me - like the black door in Matisse's painting La Porte Noire, which the two art historians discuss, repression and silence form part of the composition. The black in that picture is luminous and deep and necessary, as warm as anger and desire. Perhaps in the story it functions as a space of not-knowing, not having all the answers. Certainly these are stories to dive in and out of, just as the characters do with their favourite paintings.

(Photograph omitted)