Review: Illyria, Elizabeth Hand

Two-thirds of the way through this book I wanted to buy it for everyone on my Christmas list. At the end of it, I no longer did. I felt sort of depressed and unfinished.

That right there is my untrammeled reaction. I am writing this post (responsibly far in advance!) on the evening of the second day of the hurricane. Very very unusually I am writing it only a few hours after finishing the book, so please forgive me if my thoughts on it seem a trifle unorganized.

Ana has sung the praises of Elizabeth Hand extensively, and although I do not like every book Ana likes, I tend to like the authors she likes. I tried Mortal Love a while ago and couldn’t get through it, and my plan has always been to find and read Illyria, which is short and in a genre I like (deniably magical fantasy books; see also Among Others) and features plot points I like (weird family dynamics, the Theater). And that plan was put into effect today, and I — still am not sure what to make of Elizabeth Hand. Hence my above remarks of “huh”.

Illyria is about two cousins, Maddie and Rogan, who belong to a large, strange family all descended from a famous actress, Madeline Armin Tierney. Rogan, who is beautiful and gifted, comes in for particular bullying and mockery by his family, lest he turn out “spoiled”. Rogan and Maddie are secretly in love (deal with it!) and semi-secretly interested in theater, and the family do not tend to respond with favor to any hints of such ideas. Only their aunt Kate appears to want to nurture their interest in the theater, taking them to see plays in New York and encouraging them — Maddie, especially — in their desire to explore their gifts as performers.

I’m making it sound lame which it is not. I mentioned Among Others advisedly: These are very different books, but they both have the same feeling that there is more magic floating about in the book’s atmosphere than you will necessarily be let in on. Maddie and Rogan discovered a hiding place to, yes, come to terms with it now, to have sex, a secret room that apparently belonged to their great-grandmother, and in it is a small replica theater that is lit, somehow, and gets snowed on, somehow. They never feel exactly sure of what they are seeing when they look at it, and the book lets us have the same uncertainty and sense of wonder that Maddie and Rogan experience.

This same uncertain sense of otherworldliness — manifest this time in Rogan’s odd, beautiful, chilling singing voice — overlays the high school production of Twelfth Night in which Maddie and Rogan are cast. (This play is, roughly, the central event of this small book.) Elizabeth Hand describes the putting together of the play extremely well — how the play comes alive in response to Rogan’s voice, as well as the way that Maddie tries to make herself into the kind of performer she wants to be. The description of the play itself was a little more awkward, which is okay, I suppose; it is tricky to describe a play in a way that’s interesting and doesn’t lag. Mostly this part was very lovely.

In the end, though, I felt a smidge unsatisfied. Elizabeth Hand makes a point of certain small moments of ambiguity, questions Maddie has about her family and their history, and doesn’t resolve any of them. There’s an extent to which this was okay — I’ve said before that I like a book that can leave questions open — but I think what bothered me is that nobody said Hey this is weird. Nobody ever said that even though a lot of stuff was obviously weird. Aunt Kate occasionally seemed to make a tacit acknowledgement of the weirdness, but nobody else does even though, I say again, everything is obviously weird. I mean that the book was set in the real world (1970s New York), but the people in it didn’t behave like real world people.

The verdict, then, is this: Lovely writing, beautifully atmospheric. Would have benefited by a small amount of lampshade-hanging.

How do y’all feel about letting weirdness just sit there unacknowledged in a book? Good or not good? Creates an atmosphere or stops you suspending disbelief?

Other reviews here.

Programming note: I am off to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones. Americans have a wonderful Thanksgiving; non-Americans have a wonderful week; and we’ll talk again soon at which point it will be OFFICIALLY CHRISTMAS SEASON YESSSSSSSS.