‘Medusa’s Ankles’ by AS Byatt

What happened in an eight-month period in 1997-1998 was both my parents died. I was twenty. I had dropped out of University twice and didn’t know what I was doing. I kept running away from jobs in my lunch hour. A book shop in Camden. Past Times in Covent Garden. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

My friend gave me A.S. Byatt’s Possession the Christmas that sat neatly between their deaths, and it changed everything.

I sat, reading it, over that Christmas holiday. I was reading the same writers, or writers mentioned by those writers, and then I read that book, that one book, and I read every single writer she referenced in the half a year after. Goethe, Coleridge, EVERYTHING. I was hungry for all of it, and it opened up the world for me. Because of that book, in the summer of 1999 I applied to do a Literature degree at the University of Essex, and never looked back. It would have never happened without A.S. Byatt because I didn’t realise reading could be a thing you studied to that level, because I’d been taught that things you enjoy were too easy to study. Study should be suffering. Well. No.

That says nothing about this story, in this collection, which I bought immediately after I’d finished Possession. A woman in a hairdresser’s chair, thinking about her age, and being invisible, and how she first went into that hairdresser’s purely because of the Matisse she saw through the window, and all the things the hairdresser says, as she sits, and he talks, and they sometimes look at each other in the mirror.

I love this story. I love all of A.S. Byatt’s work, and all her books of short stories especially, are like gleaming treasures, brightly wrapped, beautifully formatted, carried about, on and off, in various handbags over decades as a reminder of something that I still can’t quite articulate.

This story has the line: She came to trust him with her disintegration.

It’s worth it for that alone.

From The Matisse Stories, Vintage, 1994

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