Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories Paperback – Dec 26 2006
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Enthusiasts for Hand's sensuously descriptive brand of literary fantasy are in for a treat with her latest collection of short fiction. Aptly subtitled "strange stories," the eight superbly crafted tales share Hand's predilection for probing the translucent borderline between magic and reality. A young lepidopterist spends a summer volunteering at London's Regent's Park Zoo and discovers a talent for transforming her lovers into rare butterfly specimens. The tattoo-artist daughter of a children's book writer finds a tarot deck once owned by a colleague of her famous mother and watches her destiny become inexplicably intertwined with the cards. In a separate section entitled "The Lost Domain," Hand offers four contemplative tales about transient relationships that she links by using poignant, recurring themes: the fragility of intimacy, the insidious unraveling of civilization following 9/11, the influence of Greek myth on modern love. Her beautifully nuanced, often disquieting style should inspire poets as well as lay down the gauntlet to colleagues also reaching for expressive heights in contemporary fantasy. Carl Hays
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The opening "Cleopatra Brimstone," the most conventional `horror' story here, sets the template. A plain Jane science geek girl gets sexually molested, which starts a transformation in her. Mousy Jane moves to London, gets a job at the London Zoo categorizing butterflies during the day, and becomes the glamorous Goth minx Cleopatra Brimstone at night. Cleopatra has a seductive, mysterious power that Jane doesn't have that ultimately seals her fate. The climax of the story is morally disturbing, rather than visceral. The writing is lush and richly descriptive, and Hand's attention to realistic detail anchors her tale.
Several pieces here are clearly autobiographical: "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" is about the death of a hippie shaman and has vague allusions to magic, but is mostly an ode to an odd, beloved free-spirit. "Wonderwall," set in early 80s DC, is Hand's eulogy for both her wayward youth and her artistic muse, here portrayed as a queer actor and his alter ego, who succumbs to AIDS. `Calypso in Berlin' is an effectively creepy monologue about the titular muse making her way in the modern artscene.
Lovers of literary fantasy and modern gothic fiction would do well to check this handsome collection out. Four of the stories appeared in a limited edition volume called "Bibliomancy," which means `book magic.' Bibliomancy is precisely what Hand does with her craft.
Hand's writing glows with color, pulses with strangeness, and weaves in a mastery of detail from entomology to Greek myth with a sureness rarely seen in current fiction. Shimmering descriptions abound, such as one about a fox: "It was grinning at me, I could see the thin rind of its gums, its yellow eyes shining as though lit from within by candles." For Hand, the world is a dazzling, complex place; each square foot of earth teems with life.
The beautifully crafted "The Least Trumps" is perhaps the most evocative piece, replete with hints and feints and magic set against human relationships that are fresh and strongly felt.
At the end, the reader may briefly feel as if he's on the cusp of understanding the author's stories, but then this belief falls away like a foggy scrim, leaving the reader tantalized by all that he hasn't grasped.
An elusive and exotic book!
The very best fictional narrative has the feel of true personal history, enough to inspire the reader to check the writer's bio and figure out whether or not certain events from the story really happened. That's how most of these stories felt to me, like places I have seen, and like true life events a storyteller has conveyed to me half-reluctantly and with some sadness. Every story overflows with lush imagery and vivid details. The stories may not be connected by character or events, but a kind of quiet melancholy hangs over them.
It's always interesting to see a writer shift focus in terms of genre and subject matter. Here, as in her novel Generation Loss, Hand generally tones down the fantastical elements more common in her earlier work. The stories feel exotic, even when nothing impossible or otherworldly is happening. Perhaps her greatest strength is the ability to convey a lifelike sense of place, and of events which might have truly happened. Though in my own reading I tend to enjoy the otherworldly and fantastic, I'm hesitant to say I wish Elizabeth Hand would write more in that direction. Whatever the degree of fantasticality in these stories, Hand's use of language is so elegant and her characters and situations so engaging, I'll gladly read whatever she chooses to write regardless of genre considerations. Here, as in Generation Loss, she does something that feels very real.
Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy lush prose and human-focused stories with an otherworldly feel even if they take place in our own world. Readers with a preference for more overt genre elements, as well as those wishing for a greater focus on plot rather than character, may enjoy this less than I did. As for me, this book on top of Generation Loss are enough for me to elevate Elizabeth Hand to among the top handful of authors whose work I'll explore with most eagerness. From here, it's on to Waking the Moon or Winterlong.
Now to review. Okay, the book is subtitled "Strange stories," so I can't say that I didn't go into this prepared for what I found. The subtitle doesn't lie. This is definitely an interesting collection of strange stories.
Whilst the book does indeed raise some unusual questions and provide the reader with a lot of what if scenarios, the stories to me felt incomplete and as if the author changed thought processes in the middle of them. I don't think I walked away from any of these stories feeling like I really understood where she was trying to go with it. Perhaps that was intentional and I am simply reinforcing her intent.
I shall warn others, this book has some tough subject matter including abuse, sexual and otherwise. If that bothers you, then this might not be the best book for you. However, if you like stories that are definitely off the beaten path (not an intentional pun) then you will get a kick out of this collection. These are the kind of stories that make you lie awake wondering hat just happened and how you would deal with the ideas that the author brought forth.
I hate bugs. The first story is full of insects. This is a personal issue and nothing wrong with what the author wrote, but it did not endear me any closer to this book.
Overall, this was different and not something that I would read again, but I'm glad I had the experience. Need an ice-breaker at a lit convention? This book is the way to go.
This review is based on a complimentary copy from Open Road Media and provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Like the best musicians and artists, Hand lays bare a part of her soul in Saffron and Brimstone. Solitude, tattoos, writing, rape, punk rock, island life in Maine, art, the counter-culture, drugs, alternative lifestyles, troubled youth—all inform the stories and are conveyed in real, human terms. Lightly sprinkled with aspects of the fantastic, the stories in the collection are highly personal—fictionally and non-fictionally—and for it, are some of the best writing Hand has produced. (See the Afterword for relative biographical information.)
Saffron and Brimstone opens on the stink of hell with the dark thriller Cleopatra Brimstone. Raped as a young woman, Janie eventually heads to Britain to house sit, and there finds employment in a zoo’s insect department. Her passion butterflies, the job is perfect as she looks to mark a new direction in life. That direction one which moves more towards spiders (of the black widow variety), Janie’s new life evolves in surprising ways. Part punk rock, part stealth, and part lepidoptera, it’s all intrigue. Moving to a real-world hell, one that I have experienced with an uncle, “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is a poignant piece about a couple dealing with a brain cancer diagnosis, and the spiritual, physical, and emotional pain that follows on. That my uncle was also a hippie still living the life long after the 60s and 70s were over—like Cal and Tina in the story—only makes it more meaningful. But even for those without similar real-life experiences, it remains impossible not to be affected by the love and the response of their friends.
And there is a lot of existential pain in the collection—pain mitigated indirectly by circumstances life deals out as time moves on. The Least Trumps is the story of a young woman still coming to terms with a past relationship. The heartbreak not pathetic, her life on an isolated island off the Maine coast as an exclusive tattoo artist satisfies her longing for place in life. But it does not balm the damage of the past. Discovering a strange pack of cards at a rummage sale one day, however, inspires an act of creativity that has consequences she never imagined. “Wonderwall” is the story of a nineteen year old college student living in the dirtiest suburbs of Maryland. Unsure of her place in life, alcohol, drugs, and anti-social behavior run redolent through her life—and her and her roommate’s lives just keep getting worse and worse. Hitting your head against the wonderwall hurting just as much as a real wall if not more, thankfully, it also has two sides.
Meditations on loss, with echoes of 9-11, the second half of the collection is appropriately titled “The Lost Domain.” Containing some of Hand’s atmospheric and experimental writing, it opens on an abstract note. “Kronia” is not a typical story, rather a jumbled timeline of events and equivocal recollections of meetings between ‘we’, the French film La Jetee seemingly the inspiration. Unrelated to music, “Calypso in Berlin” is instead a story of the Greek nymph as she exists in New England as an artist in modern times. Involved in a love affair with an American named Phillip, Calypso, through art, seeks to prevent losing him as she lost Odysseus, and makes a trip to Berlin to put her plan in action. Perhaps the most subtly powerful piece Hand has ever written, “Echo” is the story of a woman living alone on an island with her dog. The internet connection erratic, correspondence with loved ones is interspersed with long periods of waiting. But after a disaster on the mainland, the wait becomes almost unbearable. With brimstone opening the collection, it’s only suitable that “The Saffron Gatherers” closes it. Recursive in the manner in which it redresses many of the themes and tropes from the previous stories, it’s about a science fiction writer visiting a friend in San Francisco. Surprised by the feelings which result from their meeting, real life, however, interferes in ways neither would have hoped.
In the end, Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories is a collection featuring a wide variety of characters, but all of whom must deal with loss in some form. For some it is in the past affecting the present, for others it is in the exigencies of the present, and for others still, it is what the imminent future holds. Not a fairy tale among them, each main character (all women) finds a course in life that brings them to a new place—a place beyond the loss, but yet as subtly surprising as situations real-life offers. Whether it be a new understanding, new circumstances, a new locale, etc., the loss is dealt with in one way or another. The prose vivid, polished, and affecting; the characters varied and realistically presented (i.e. as troubled and honest as we are); and the stories appealing, from the surface action to the deeper, cathartic developments of self and place, modern literary fantasy in short from doesn’t get much better than this. Superb collection.
All stories published between 2001 and 2006, the following is the table of contents:
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
The Least Trumps
The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations
“Calypso in Berlin”
“The Saffron Gatherers”