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)
There are some authors who I like enough as writers that they get added to my favorites list despite finding many flaws with their novels. Charles Stross is like this for me. I often have nits to pick with his work, and sometimes I downright don't like a novel (Glasshouse, for instance). But still, I always keep reading, and think that he is one of the best speculative fiction authors out there.
I have a feeling that I may end up with a similar reaction to Elizabeth Hand. I read this book pretty compulsively. I loved her diction and her style and the way that she mixed art and fantasy and fairy. It was not until the very end of the book that I kind of realized that I didn't really like the plot very much. This mainly because I was unconvinced by a number of the characters. I found the way that the book shifted perspective particularly jarring, and both Juda and Val remained too opaque and still not opaque enough for what they were supposed to be.
This sounds like very serious criticism, and it is. But still, I found the book inspiring and thought-provoking and actually kind of a brilliant mess. I like brilliant messes. I kind of hope to find the same quality in the rest of her work. What do you think? Will I?
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.
Ms. Hand, master of the lush descriptive passage, is brilliant at creating a sense of place, especially with her descriptions of 19th-century Cornwall and 21st-century London. Maybe you'll feel as if you've dropped in for a visit. She also has a way of making the bizarre seem at least semi-normal (a border collie that apparently would place in a NASCAR race), and she's playfully suspenseful (going Hitchcock one better, she serves up a McGuffin but in the end simply tosses it away). The book's tightly plotted and the obsessed characters seem real, for who among us has not fallen victim to obsessive love at one time or another?
A warning for those few of you who may have stumbled upon this without knowing a thing about "Waking the Moon": Ms. Hand apparently expects her readers to bring something to the table with them. In this case that would be a knowledge of Art History, Victorian life and literature, the pre-Raphaelites, Celtic (and other) mythology, and Jungian pyschology. And a knowledge of British Geography wouldn't hurt either.
I've only one question: does Daniel go home in the car or the motorcycle?
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.