Tuesday, August 24, 2004

MORTAL LOVE: Days 2 - 4

I'm now on page 136 of Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand. I'm reading it slowly, so as to savor the characters, images, and the entire sensory experience Hand has gifted us with in this novel. The plot is slowly coming into focus--of necessity, as she continues to go back and forth between three different times and sets of characters. But I don't mind--each strand is equally interesting, each set of characters just as compelling. At this point, I've been completely won over by the novel.

Even elements that usually don't work for me, work for me in this novel. For example, I dislike portrayals of historical characters in most novels because it is so hard to do well; it can derail a novel for me if the portrayal seems more like caracature. But Hand is having a wonderful time with characters such as Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde's mother. Sometimes you can sense a writer's delight in the writing, and I think I detect that in Hand's depiction of Swinburne.

Inside the private dining room stood a single table, and here sat a short, slight middle-aged man, staring gloomily at a glass of beer.
"Hello, Learmont," he said, but did not bother to stand. His child-like voice was so high-pitched that Radborne began to laugh, thinking this must be some shared joke. At the little man's disgusted expression, he stopped and looked down, abashed. This gave him an excellent view of the man's shoes, which were tiny and made of walnut-colored kid with pearl buttons.
. . .
Algernon took his glass of beer and sipped from it. He shot Radborne a keen look. "Do not let him cure you, whatever the matter is. Do you know, I used to sit at this very table with Burton and Bradlaugh and Bendyshe, and we would devour human flesh.
"Don't be absurd, Algernon," said Learmont.
"Human flesh!" Algernon's fluting voice grew shrill. "Oh, Mr. Cuntstick, I was a far happier madman and cannibal."
"Happy, and merry, and bad! 'And I would have given my soul for this, To burn forever in burning hell.'"
Radborne watched in alarm as the little man got to his feet, raising his glass. "'Preserve us from our enemies,'" he recited...
He took another sip of beer, grimaced and sat down. "I despise beer," he said. "Watts-Dunton told me it made Tennyson great. I do believe it is what killed him."
"I didn't know Tennyson was dead," said Radborne. Algernon glared at him.

Hand's depiction of Wilde's mother is also wonderful.

Behind him a figure loomed, a mountain of red silk topped by a dead bird...She stared at him fiercely: a woman tall as he was, towering over six feet in high-heeled boots. She wore a sweeping dress of crimson silk, tufted with black velvet tassels and with numerous onyx and ivory brooches pinned haphazardly across the bodice. Beneath the ibis-crowned hat, her hair was the color of a magpie's wing, blue-black and so heavily lacquered that the smell made Radborne slightly ill. She must have weighed nearly twenty stone, not fat but genuinely massive--broad-shoulders and with a wide, once-handsome face, now thickly dusted with pearly gray powder, deep-set brown eyes kohled cartoonishly black.

Meanwhile, in the present day, a mysterious woman is, in an almost off-hand way, seducing would-be book-writer Daniel, although it's not off-hand for him:

He leaned toward her, and she took his face in her hands. Her fingers were so hot he flinched. When her mouth touched his, he resisted, but only for an instant. Then he felt as though his entire body were somehow being remade beneath her touch, her limbs flashing heat so intense he gasped, the skin burned from him so that his ribs scored her breasts and his skull her cheek, his hair tangling hers in tendrils of ash and flame and his fingers blue fire flickering across her face.

I am not finding much to dislike in Mortal Love.



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