ELEMENTALS

STORIES OF FIRE AND ICE

Six rather arbitrarily linked stories (which allegedly explore various “extremes and polarities”) from the rococo stylist whose best fiction includes Booker Prize—winning Possession (1990) and the (rather similar) story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1997). Exotic locales and almost oppressively lush imagery dominate even such slight fictions as “Baglady” (set in a vast shopping mall in the “Far East” and redolent, if not reeking, of Muriel Spark); “Jael” (which employs the biblical Apocryphal story of Jael and Sisera to explain a moody commercial artist’s tendency “to rejoice in wickedness”; and “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” a witty parable in which an insubordinate cook is taught by a young artist to cherish even the evanescent glories of her own “Creation.” More interesting, and more precisely built on defining contrasts, are the longer stories: “A Lamia in the Cevennes,” about an Englishman’s retirement to the French countryside to paint—and to find, in his custom-built outdoor swimming pool, aesthetic and other temptations; and (the unfortunately titled) “Crocodile Tears,” about a suddenly widowed Englishwoman who escapes to the southern French city of Nimes (drenched in artifact-reminders of its past as a Roman outpost), and a transformative acquaintance with a Norwegian tourist whose burden of loss both reflects and mocks her own: it’s a dizzily amusing, oddly seductive tale of cultural and psychological conflict. The best piece is “Cold,” a deliciously imagined fairytale whose heroine, the beautiful princess Fiammarosa, unexpectedly departs the invigorating northern clime where she thrives to marry a prince (and expert glassblower) from a barren desert country. Her life is soon indeed imperilled, but the prince’s creation of an “artificial world” magically preserves her—and their union. This is a brilliant and charming variation on its announced theme, namely that “Love changes people.” An often enchanting further display of Byatt’s fluent style and far-reaching imagination.

Pub Date: May 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-375-50250-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1999

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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