Thursday, October 07, 2004

MORTAL LOVE by Elizabeth Hand--Finished

As I've previously written, Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love is a sumptuously written book, a feast for the senses, with very believable characters and situations. At one point toward the middle of the book, I found myself losing myself in it (in a good sense), as the divide between the real world and the fey for an instant fell away. I've already quoted enough from the novel for readers to have a sense of Hand's beautiful prose style, so I'm going to refrain from further quoting here.

And yet, as I entered the book's latter half, the narrative began to lose urgency and I found I was admiring Mortal Love more than living within it. After that initial interstitial moment of contact between worlds, everything else either operated at the same level of wonder or below. There's no real climax when it comes to the description, although there's one hell of a sex scene toward the novel's end.

[Note: minor spoilers ahead--nothing that gives away too much, I think]

That, however, is a rather minor nit. A more pressing problem is the juggling of three different viewpoint characters, two in the present and one in the past. The main thread, set in London in the present-day and featuring Daniel Rowlands, a journalist, is the most convincing--at least, until the end. The other contemporary thread, from the point of view of Valentine Comstock, has an arbitrary feel to it. We have limited access to Valentine, his thread limited to two or three chapters, and by story's end I began to feel that, given Valentine's ultimate role in the story, the reader wasn't well-served by his absence. His sections might have worked better if expanded and spaced more evenly between sections from the other two narrative threads. Or, perhaps, his sections aren't needed at all, and he could have been introduced through Rowlands' thread in some way. Especially since, considering his pivotal role at the end, we get no sense of his reaction to events—at what might be seen as the prelude to the novel's climax, his viewpoint vanishes, never to return. (This is obviously Hand's conscious decision, but I'm not sure it works as she intends.)

The third narrative thread, that of Radborn Comstock, a Decadent-era English painter is stunning in its level of detail and its sense of atmosphere. These scenes are, perhaps, among the most powerful in the book, as Comstock takes up residency at an insane asylum and falls in love with a mysterious patient. But what of their relevance to the novel as a novel? Except for a few pieces of information gained from the Radborn sections, this thread adds little to the reader's understanding. As a writer, my reaction to this thread is that it's so gorgeous and ethereal and yet wonderfully detailed that I wouldn't have wanted to see it deleted or diminished.

However, since I had a decent idea of what was going on about half-way through the book and the bulk of the best Radborn sections take place after that, there is a sense of marking time. There's no narrative urgency because we're, in a sense, just waiting for Radborn to figure out what the reader already knows.

The problem of lack of narrative urgency also permeates the Daniel Rowlands sections after awhile, as, again, we're more or less waiting for Rowlands to realize (1) that everything everybody has been telling him is indeed true and (2) the true identity of the mysterious woman he has fallen in love with. I became more and more impatient with Rowlands because, although a journalist, he seems unable to investigate the woman, to become the detective in journalist's clothing that he needs to become to help the pacing regain a sense of urgency and for the reader to move him from the "believable character" to "almost a real person" category. Instead, he is generally passive. (Admittedly, this may be because he has fallen under the mystery woman's spell.) This leads to a frantic car ride toward the end of the novel where another ethereal woman has to explain, or allude to explanations. In place of the lovely descriptions, the utterly hypnotizing sense of the fey, we get "business" as they'd call it in the theater. Actors careful to hit their spots and deliver their lines. And suddenly the spontaneity of the book fades a little. (I wonder about this in terms of the question of sprinter versus marathon runner, since Hand's stories and novellas almost never enter this kind of decaying orbit.)

There's a great beauty in Mortal Love and more than enough on a paragraph level and character level to hold the reader's interest, and it's possible I'm being just a little harsh given the expectations I had by the middle of the novel. For me, though, this was a wonderful tale in many ways and a maddening one in others. I enjoyed vast stretches of the book, however, and I would not be surprised to see the book figure strongly in genre awards categories, based simply on the amazing writing style on display.

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