Mortal Love

I’ve been putting off writing a review of Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand. I finished it well over a week ago, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since. Partly this is because I have genuinely mixed feelings about it (I liked it! I didn’t like it! I found it beautifully annoying!) and that’s hard to write about; partly it’s because the book left me confused up until the last few pages, and that makes me feel… confused; partly it’s because it came so strongly recommended by bloggers I respect, and that makes me question my assessment of the book. But at some point I do want to write a review of it — I made it through over 400 pages of the thing — so here goes! Be warned that I am going to discuss the plot and ending in some detail, so although I subscribe to Amateur Reader’s dictum that A Watched Plot Never Spoils, consider yourself caveated.

Hand’s novel weaves three plot lines together — or anyway, three that I counted. There could easily have been more that were lost on me. The first follows American-painter-in-Victorian-London, Radborne Comstock. Comstock makes the acquaintance of several members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, meets Lady Wilde, hears a large number of strange folk tales, and finally meets the mysterious Evienne Upstone. Evienne is apparently a madwoman (she is in an insane asylum) but seems to be more talented at driving others insane, including Edward Burne-Jones and the painter Jacobus Candell. Comstock falls helplessly in thrall to Evienne, and his experiences with her border on the hallucinatory.

Nearly  a century later, Comstock’s grandson Valentine winds up institutionalized after seeing some intensely erotic paintings his grandfather made while he was under Evienne’s spell. At almost the same time, Daniel Rowlands, American-writer-in-contemporary-London, working on the myth of Tristan and Iseult, meets the larger-than-life Larkin Meade and falls instantly in love, or lust, or servitude. Larkin leaves him physically and emotionally deranged, unable to help himself despite the warnings he receives. Through echoes and parallels in the plot lines, we understand that Evienne and Larkin are the same being: something outside of human understanding, something that has no death, that feeds on human emotion and sexuality, that needs our sense of longing and mortality — something she can never have. Contact with her ruins and then kills human beings, like moths in flame. Only when she goes back to her own world can we (“we” meaning, mostly, the male artists she draws toward her) be provisionally safe.

Okay, so that made sense, didn’t it? That’s because I distilled it to two paragraphs. Hand spends 400 pages dancing around the topic like Irene Dunne. She writes, and writes beautifully, about madness, art, love, yearning, (sometimes quite explicitly) lust, power, friendship, the role of the muse, absinthe, folk tales, music, Persephone, painting, Nixies, Undines, the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, Tristan and Iseult, Christina Rossetti, eternity, Orpheus, Queen Herla, and the Tir Nan Og, and that’s only part of the huge swirl of what’s going on in this book. Yet she is almost never specific. Rarely does she describe a painting in real detail, or say precisely what it is Evienne does to her male victims (they wind up physically scarred, but more in lust than ever), or what her psychiatrist’s new antidepressant is actually supposed to do for the insane artists he collects. Instead, we get scenes like this:

“Stop,” said Juda. “Larkin is someone I look after. Or try to anyway. Larkin is…” She hesitated.

“What?” demanded Daniel. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Wrong with her? Nothing. Who told you that?”

“Well, for starters, Mr. Hayward here said she’s a mental patient.”

Former mental patient,” said Nick.

“She’s not crazy,” Juda said emphatically. “She has… well, let’s call them boundary issues. Does she seem dangerous to you, Daniel?”

This conversation, I might add, has been going on for three pages and continues for fifteen more, going around and around and asking questions, without giving substantially more information (though some pretty images) than we have here. Another good example:

Daniel stepped past him to regard a long, cartoonish scroll of brown paper, al balloon-shaped people and dogs and–

“Jesus.” He drew back quickly. “Thats… Jesus…”

“He’s been institutionalized for some time now,” said Learmont. “Most of the charges were dropped, and at any rate there was no way he could stand trial.”

Oh, come on. Really? You’re going to leave us hanging like that? But the whole book is like that, hinting at one point that Larkin is mad, at another that she’s a fairy queen, at another that she’s Iseult, or a goddess, or perhaps the muse, the principle of art, desire itself, or I don’t know what. The book hints and hints and hints, using folk tales and fairy tales and legends from all eras and ages. It’s a bit like walking into the British Museum: everything is so rich and piled here and there, pillaged from all over the world, where the sun never set on that empire. It is beautiful and confused, and in the end annoying, at least to me. (I should clarify that I generally do not find the BM annoying.)

In the last twenty pages or so, Hand takes the trouble to straighten things out, at least mostly. She settles on Celtic mythology and does an info-dump that explains what’s been going on, and gives a reasonably happy and noble ending to her tormented characters — which doesn’t really fit her narrative of longing and loss and death, but never mind. By that time I was glad just to untangle some of the strings.

I really wanted to love this book. I am such a sucker for faery. I so wanted this to echo John Crowley’s masterpiece, Little, Big, with its similar message that longing can never be appeased, things are bigger than they look, and what makes us happy makes us wise. (I think perhaps I had better accept that Little, Big is sui generis.) But I like to piece things together; I like things to make sense under their own rules. I don’t like for there to be no rules. That was the problem with this one, for me. Those of you who are Elizabeth Hand fans, have you read anything of hers I might fare better with?

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16 Responses to Mortal Love

  1. litlove says:

    I’ve never read this author – or indeed heard of her before now – but I can see why it would be a bit frustrating. It’s the difficulty of making huge claims in fiction – this character can bewitch and enslave people, this character has run completely mad in a moment, this painting is the most beautiful ever…. That sort of thing poses problems of representation, but just gesturing towards the magnitude is a bit of a cop-out. I don’t know John Crowley either, but I will go and look him up!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Litlove, you’re in for a treat. Crowley may truly be one of my top three favorite contemporary writers. Start with Little, Big, which I think is an absolute masterpiece.

  2. Deb says:

    I liked Hand’s GENERATION LOSS about a punk-era photographer meeting up with her mentor/muse some thirty years later and becoming involved in the mystery surrounding the abduction of a teenager. The setting is coastal Maine and although there’s some eerieness in the locations, there’s no overt supernatural elements.

    I have tried some of Hand’s short stories, but did not care for them. I’ve heard good things about ILLYRIA (hope I’ve spelled that correctly), but I haven’t read it yet.

  3. Playing keep-away with your audience like that is sure to make them turn on you. I can definitely see why you didn’t enjoy this.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes — at first it was irritating, and later kind of boring. At least I did finish it, so her writing was that good.

  4. The book sounds kind of over-stuffed, doesn’t it? And then, with all of that fascinating material, to waste time with that perfectly ordinary dialogue.

    You’re right about Little, Big. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, exactly! The material *is* fascinating. She could have chosen less than half of it and had a stronger book. I noticed the pedestrian dialogue myself. The descriptive, absinthe-fueled passages are more interesting, but she’s no Ducasse.

  5. Jenny says:

    Okay, now very curious about Little, Big.

    I started reading Mortal Love, several times, and I kept not getting any farther in than a few chapters. The writing style didn’t appeal to me, and the way the characters acted seemed weird and not real. So yeah, didn’t do anything for me.

    • Jenny says:

      Little, Big is absolutely amazing. I think it’s the best fantasy novel ever written. I didn’t expect it when I read it; I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s just a whole world of opening doors. A total masterpiece.

  6. chasing bawa says:

    I loved Hand’s ‘Waking the Moon’. But then I read it when I was visiting Washington DC so that may have affected me. I haven’t read anything else of hers since but I plan to in the future. Shame you didn’t quite like this one.

  7. Frisbee says:

    Oh my goodness, this sounds fascinating! I have a short story by her in an anthology and had better read that before I do anything rash. I know what you mean about Faerie. I always think I’ll love these novels: not always, though.

    • Jenny says:

      No, unfortunately they don’t always live up to their billing. But have you read War for the Oaks? That’s a good one. And Fire and Hemlock, of course.

  8. Trapunto says:

    Info dump. Yes.

    I didn’t like Mortal Love, but I loved Illyria. Hand is a very changeable writer.

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