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Mortal Love: A Novel Paperback – Jun 9 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Hand (Black Light) explores the theme of artistic inspiration and its dangerous devolvement into obsession and madness through three interwoven narrative threads in this superb dark fantasy novel. In late Victorian England, American painter Radborne Comstock makes the acquaintance of Evienne Upstone, a model who's inspired members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and driven painter Jacobus Candell completely insane. More than half a century later, Radborne's grandson Valentine ends up institutionalized after viewing intensely erotic paintings grandpa produced under Evienne's spell. His experiences echo those of Daniel Rowlands, an American writer in contemporary London whose research into the legend of Tristan and Iseult brings him into contact with Larkin Meade, a fey lover whose passion leaves him physically and emotionally deranged. Subtle parallels and resonances between the subplots suggest that Evienne and Larkin are, impossibly, the same being: a force of nature incomprehensible to mortals, whom countless doomed artists have translated imperfectly into aesthetic ideals of beauty and love. Hand does a marvelous job of making the ineffable tangible, lacing her tale with references to the work of artists ranging from Algernon Swinburne to Kurt Cobain and capturing the intense emotions of her characters in exquisitely sculpted prose. With its authentic period detail and tantalizing spirit of mystery, this timeless tale of desire and passion should reach many readers beyond her usual fantasy base.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
What do Daniel Rowlands, an American critic in London to write a book on Tristan and Iseult, and Radborne Comstock, a young American painter navigating the London of 1883, have in common? Both are in thrall to a beautiful woman who has auburn hair, artistic leanings, and strange powers. Also captivated are Comstock's grandson, who sees the woman's image in one of his grandfather's paintings, and Thomas Learmont, a nineteenth-century physician in charge of an insane asylum with two patients--one of whom is a woman with auburn hair. Hand, who also wrote the cult favorite Waking the Moon (1994), deftly weaves her novel of obsession and enchantment with many threads, moving back and forth in time and laying in folklore, pre-Raphaelite painting, the poetry of Algernon Swinburne, and the geography of London, both Victorian and modern, among its other strands. This book beguiles with its fusion of fantasy with convincing characters and richly drawn settings. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
For example, just try to identify the protagonist. Is it Daniel, the reporter on Sabbatical in modern day London? Or Val, the sedated grandson of the artist Comstock (who is yet another candidate) who knew Swinburne? Perhaps these men are all incarnations of someone else? And what about the girl Larkin. Who is she? Drifter, bewitched, cursed, or a shape shifter?
I bought this book and read it because a critic writing for The Washington Post Book World described it as `sublime'. I suppose that terminology fits, but it occurs to me that unless you are fairly well read in literature, and perhaps an English major, you may not get some aspects of this mysterious tale.
I'm not sure I got it, but over and over throughout the book I experienced "recognition' or "deja vu" regarding various people, scenes, and items of interest to the protagonist of the moment (at least three deconstructed and overlapping tales are told) such as green absinthe, apple blossom flowers and owl feathers. One of the characteristics of myths is their episodic nature. They seldom make sense to the rational mind. They appeal to the artistic side of the brain.
Do you know who Blodeuedd was? Her name means flowers in the old Welsh. She was the wife Math and Gwydion of conjured out of flowers for Llew Llau Gyffes. She did not choose her husband and when she fell in love with another, she was punished by being turned into an owl. The Pre-Raphaelites were interested in art created before Raphael rediscovered perspective i.e., art without perspective whose content reflected mythical tales and the hidden (occult) world visible only to those with eyes to see. They were also interested in Theosophy.
LIke the mythmakers of old,Elizabeth Hand employs skillful use of language (incredible metaphors), characterization, irony, and other narrative devices. As a result, she has written a fine and scholarly bit of literature. If you are interested in 19th century art, Jungian archetypes, and the masks of the Gods (and Goddesses) you will probably enjoy it.
On this level, the novel surely succeeds--the reader, never bored, flips from one point of view (there are three masculine protagonists) to another, from one century to another with great fascination, wanting to know, to discover and finally to understand. In the same way that the object of the men's affections, called many names throughout the different time periods, entices the men who seek her out, wanting to capture her on canvas, in print and of course, between the sheets, we are also enticed to the point where we want to pinpoint her genus and specie. We realize from the start that the woman is not human, and we are given hints as to what exactly she is and what exactly her motivation might be, but mysteriously this is never fully resolved. A little investigative work is necessary to at least grasp the essence of the associated myth and even this does not tie up all the loose threads that run through this novel like the frazzled end of a bolt of cut fabric, albeit a lovely rich brocade. Ms. Hand was kind enough to explain to me that Larkin embodies many mythical creatures emanating from a fairy world with little contact with the more fragile human existence.
There is so much that is not explained and this adds to the slightly fogged out feeling that we share with the male protagonists as they interact with this supernatural situation. I speak of allusions to the scissors of Dr. Learmont, the green light, the fantasy world glimpsed by all the artists and sought after---metaphors for the creative process? I am uncertain. From Larkin's obsessive objective, who was Val and how were we to make the connection? The character of Juda---sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, sometimes as fluid as water---acts as a sentinel of sorts; Ms. Hand likens her to Puck, mischievous yet responsible for Larkin's escape from the other world. Nevertheless, as fun as this novel is, I would have totally enjoyed more of an explanation, or at least another chapter that would have gained me more insight and more of Hand's deliciously edgy phrasing.
As far as the storyline, however, none of this really matters. As she does in Waking the Moon and the Glimmering, Hand compels us to enter this strange world where we are left a little mystified yet are better for the journey.
I thoroughly enjoyed the otherworldly quality of this read and recommend it to anyone who likes a glimpse at the creative process. The interplay between real historical characters and those crafted by Hand works well as do the backdrop of the insane asylum and the labyrinthine back alleys of London. Hand does a fine job of capturing the despair and frustration of each of the men as they lose what they think they desire most.
As my knowledge of Welsh myths is slim, I would have appreciated some of Hand's insight in an afterward, maybe an explanation of the myth of Blodeuedd or the connection to the Dog that Jumps Down. Fans of 'Waking the Moon', will surely enjoy this novel especially with its cameo of Balthazar Warnick, but, they like myself and the male protagonists will find themselves craving more to make the entire sensory experience click with that satisfactory flash of ultimate understanding.
Writing-wise, I think it was probably better than *Waking the Moon*, but I have to admit I liked *Moon* better. *Moon* had sympathetic, every(wo)man sorts of characters who felt like old friends at first sight. *Mortal Love* has several characters who could be interesting, but she doesn't spend enough time with any of them to truly show us what makes them tick, and none of them feel as tangible as, say, Sweeney Cassidy. Still a good book, though, and a wonderful job of using faery material without making it cute or childish in the least, retaining the deadly mystery of the old tales.
The narrative skips around a bit from character to character, which gets a little confusing, but the story is compelling and the characters themselves are interesting.
I kept feeling that I was missing some vital information that would help me make sense of the book, and after reading some Amazon reviews, I think that is indeed the case. Di's review sums it up:
"It probably helps to have some knowledge of The Maginogi and other Celtic tales, as well as the poems of Yeats and the writing of Robert Graves. Understanding who Tristan and Isolde were and the Pre-Raphaelites won't hurt. Else, how can one put this convoluted tale in perspective?"
Yeah, I don't really have that much of a classic lit education yet, so I was lost in more than a few spots. And I had no idea that some characters, like Swinburne, were actual historical figures. But I could sense that I was missing stuff, at least, instead of the story just being written badly.
I would really like to go back to this one in about ten years, after I've learned more about the subjects it touches on.
I'll have to say that at first, it was a little confusing, because each chapter introduced a new protagonist. Technically, there are three, as the synopsis mentioned-- Radborne Comstock, an American in England who will one day be a famous painter (early 1900's); Daniel Rowlands, an American journalist in London (present-day), and Val Comstock, Radborne's grandson, an artist (present-day).
To be fair, it takes a few chapters for the ball to get rolling-- you initially have so many characters thrown at you that it takes supreme concentration to keep them all sorted out-- in addition to the three protagonists, there is a whole host of important supporting characters of which to keep track. Though, to Hand's credit, each of these minor characters is distinct and whole unto himself or herself-- there is not a two-dimensional personality in sight. At any rate, I spent a certain portion of the novel's outset wondering just how and when these storylines would ever come together.
As the novel gained momentum and we learn that Larkin Meade may be one and the same with the Pre-Raphaelite muse, Evienne Upstone, I found that everything is indeed linked. Here, Hand displays her finest gift-- her ability to steep our mundane world in an ethereal magic. While there are elements of the fantastic present always, Mortal Love always straddles the line between fantasy and reality. Never are we told for certain what Larkin actually is, but we get hints-- faerie tales and King Orfeo, the myth of Bloduedd, muse to rock god and painter alike. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. She is a blending of all of these things, improbable, but all the more startlingly beautiful in her inability to be compartmentalized, defined, constrained.
Stealing scenes are characters like Juda Trent, a mysterious androgyne who seems to know much more about Larkin than any mortal should know. In that role, I could picture none other than Tilda Swinton-- they have the same feral beauty, the same devastating intelligence. Balthazar Warnick from Hand's earlier novels, Waking the Moon and Black Light has a brief cameo, and Charlotte "Lit" Moylan gets a brief mention.
The only problem I had with the novel overall was the pacing. The reader experiences all three timelines simultaneously, and this is a disservice to Radborne's tale. Atmospheric and lovely though it may be, the reader knows more than Radborne regarding his mystery woman's identity, and it's as though we're waiting for him to play catch-up. Though his section does introduce strong artistic themes, it does plod a bit in comparison to the other threads. The other pacing issue is that everything wraps up very quickly after the slow work of juggling several storylines. Perhaps due to this sudden conclusion, the novel doesn't quite end seamlessly-- I certainly have lingering questions here and there. but satisfyingly enough. How did Juda come to this world? Why has s/he appointed herself/himself Larkin's watcher? At what point does Radborne go mad, and what was the phantom troupe that passed him on the moor? Are both Learmonts the same person, as well? What exactly is Val's true parentage? How are we to completely buy Val's essential role in the ending given our limited knowledge of him?
However, for the most part, I was satisfied, if a little dazzled by the richness of the writing. The themes are common ones-- the relationship of the artist to art, the relationship of artist to muse, the feverish obsession of unadorned desire, the wish to leave a lasting print behind when we leave this world. However common, they are exquisitely rendered here. I felt as though I were slowly plucking the petals off a cherry blossom as the pages turned, and the imagery was so lush that it was as though I was experiencing the novel with all five of my senses. The period sections were amazingly detailed-- perfectly capturing the allure and decay of the Decadents. There was raw, rich sensuality spilled on every page. This is the hallmark of great writing.