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.

34 thoughts on “Review: Illyria, Elizabeth Hand

  1. I just learnt the meaning of the term lampshade hanging. You learn something new everyday.

    This book sounds interesting though. I like the idea of a secret room with a lit stage and stuff. Maybe in smaller doses, this book could have worked?

    • I’m not sure how official a thing it is, this lampshade-hanging business. Don’t quote me on that! :p

      The book was already in a very small dose. It wasn’t that there was too much of anything, it’s that there wasn’t enough about the magic half. The writing was lovely.

  2. I hated this novel. I felt betrayed by it; I thought Maddy was a heartless bitch (and said so, in my review). Trapunto points out that the kind of magic Rogan brought to everyone had its own seeds of destruction, and I can see that now, after I’ve cooled off a bit. Nevertheless, Eleanor never did read that book, nor do I see any reason to get it out and urge her to try it now.

    • She was sort of a heartless bitch, but on the other hand…I don’t know. I could see her point. I thought it was a little unfair of Rogan to expect her to stay.

  3. Those sorts of things are irritating, and it’s weird how they’re all too common despite readers in general seeming to find them so. Pity it happened in a book you would otherwise have recommended, a big miss there.

    • I know. It made me really sad. On the other hand, I just read another of Elizabeth Hand’s books and never liked any of it, so I guess I’d rather the Illyria reading experience, where a lot of it felt wonderful and magical.

  4. I don’t mind weirdness for it’s own sake, but it has to make some kind of sense for me to really be interested in it. I am a person who loves strange books, evidenced by my love for the book about the sentient bicycles, but I have to know about the weirdness going in, or be convinced of its place in the plot before I totally buy in. I’m not sure what to make of this book, but now I do want to try it!!

    • Hahahahaha, “my love for the book about the sentient bicycles” is a phrase that does not occur often enough. I’d be interested to see what you thought of this book — I think I expected more magical things to happen, and that messed me up in the end.

  5. I like weirdness, but as zibilee says above, it must make sense to keep me interested otherwise I stop reading. Even though you didn’t like it in the end, it made me sort of curious. Comparing it to Among Others probably did it. :)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. I like resolution. I don’t mind a few artistically decorated loose ends, but I don’t like a book that feels like it has so many loose ends that it’s actually unraveled. When I encounter a stage that randomly has snow on it, and a chilling perfect voice that comes from nowhere, and the author explains nothing, I end up wondering if the author herself had any explanation for it, or if she is just jerking me around.

    • Yes! Right? Exactly! Even a suggested possible explanation would have been enough for me. I truly don’t need everything all wrapped up with a bow, just proposed explanations!

  7. I find weirdness fascinating, particularly when it feels like part of the “culture” of a family or group of people in a novel. It seems it is not at all weird to them! Glad you liked(with exceptions) this one. I can’t wait to read Hand’s new story collection, Errantry.

    • Oo, I love that, the culture of a family or group. That is completely true and something I love a lot in books too — as long as it’s clear that it’s the culture of that group, and not something we should expect to see happening everywhere.

  8. The elements sound good. I suppose it’s like one of those frustrating meals where you’ve put together three fabulously nice things, but they have not coalesced into more than the sum of themselves. Admittedly, an annoyance. But do have a wonderful Thanksgiving!! Hope you have an amazing time!

    • Oh Litlove. I am so impressed that you are capable of putting together three fabulously nice things to eat at the same time. I can barely manage one. :p I did have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  9. It is so rare that authors can make the hovering magic thing work – does it happen, doesn’t it? I think Jo Walton did it excellently in Among Others (though really, Jo Walton can do no wrong in my book) in that I ended completely unsure of whether it was real or not. Perhaps this book doesn’t succeed on quite the same level.

    Enjoy your season’s eatings!

  10. I do think an author has to commit. Is this a story in which unicorns exist? Or a story about a delusional little girl who thinks she sees unicorns? Otherwise that selfsame author will just end up irritating readers. If the answer is ‘both’, then the evidence should fully support either hypothesis (as opposed to being contradictory).

    I still think you’re playing with fire, in terms of reader expectations. I never read ‘The Life of Pi’ but I remember my dad being irritated by it for very similar reasons.

    • Mm, I can see what your father means about Life of Pi, though in fact I liked the way the author handled that ending. It was the right amount of ambiguity for me, where you could decide which version of the story pleased you. With this I wasn’t even sure there were two versions of the story.

    • No? I can see how it would be the same. It’s got a certain amount of ambiguity about what interpretation to put on events. I liked it in Life of Pi though.

  11. “still am not sure what to make of Elizabeth Hand.”

    I think Elizabeth Hand may not know what to make of Elizabeth Hand. Hence the lack of lampshade hanging? She may not sure where to put one. That is why I keep coming back to her books even though her endings frequently disappoint. (Or the whole book disappoints, in the case of Mortal Love.) If an author can’t hang her lampshade honestly, I admire her for having the courage not to try. As long as she does the best she can with the light from the bare bulb.

    This metaphor is pretty much panting with effort. Never mind!

    • Yes! I am not sure what to make of her either! I keep feeling that I must love her because Ana does and Ana has wonderful taste and I like nearly every author she likes. But I have found Elizabeth Hand — quite inscrutable.

  12. Huh.

    I too have tried Elizabeth Hand thanks to Ana but gave up both times (Mortal Love & one of her earlier ones…I stopped when there were alien bugs in a different dimension LOL). And your post makes me unsure whether this one will be worth it or not. But it’s Ana! So I’ll probably end up giving Illyria a try.

    • Hm, what was the alien bugs one? I read another of Elizabeth Hand’s books over Thanksgiving break and was far less impressed with it than I was with Illyria. I’ll give Mortal Love another try at some point, and after that I guess I will be done. Woe!

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