Elizabeth Hand, Mortal Love (Morrow, 2004)

This is probably the first book that I heartily enjoyed, but barely understood. Throughout this wide-spanning, endlessly complex novel, I was overcome by the sensation similar to that of a child listening to an adult conversation, or a foreigner trying to comprehend an active dialogue in a language she's only half learned. While there is a main plot, a thick, twisting vein throughout the narrative that is easy enough to follow so that one is able to finish the novel feeling they've received a fair amount of closure, there are just as many spiralling, branching, wild elements that remain unsolved. While it was nearly impossible to get all of the puzzle pieces to fit by the time I finished reading, the misty, unfinished portrait I ended up with was nevertheless beautiful, haunting, and erotic.

The story is comprised of a number of stories, subplots, and narratives, but all, like waves and foam drawn towards the dark heart of a whirlpool, inevitably gravitate around the wild, dangerous, and fantastical woman set at its core. To nineteenth-century painter Radborne Comstock, her name is Evienne Upstone, an allegedly mad woman held captive in a Sarsinmoor mental asylum. To modern-day journalist Daniel Rowlands and his musician friend Nick Hayward, she is Larkin Meade, a mentally disturbed, irresistibly attractive, but physically destructive lover. And to Valentine Comstock, the grandson of Radborne, whose own artistic impulses had been suppressed through medication since his youth, she is Vernoraxia, the woman featured on every page of his forgotten sketchbooks. Who is she? What is she? And how is it that any artist who comes into contact with her is drawn to her like a moth to a flame, only to destroy themselves after creating the best pieces of their careers?

While reading this book had it own delights and advantages, it was also the source of many frustrations, as so many narratives and ideas branch out from the original root, but not all of them manage to find their way back to its conclusion. The conglomeration of all the narrative pieces is rather ragged and fragile, trailed by a host of loose ends that threaten to unravel the entire thing. For instance, there is no real explanation for Learmont, a dark and rather cruel personage who makes a living by introducing artists to the wild woman, and collecting the brilliant works of art they produce as they go mad under her influence. Also, a distracting amount of legends and myths pertaining to the wild woman are introduced, of owls and flowers, of the 'dog that hasn't jumped down yet', of the lost queen engulfed in flames, but they all conflict, with bits of some gaining relevance and pieces of others revealing truths, confusing things even more. Perhaps this is what Ms. Hand intended, in an attempt to make her novel much like her central female protagonist -- lovely, addictive, but ultimately unknowable. Ms Hand, if this was your intention, then you, madam, have succeeded on all counts.

An intriguingly crafted and detailed work, Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love will in all likelihood benefit from a second read, or even a third. I certainly enjoyed it when I read it for the first time, but I am just as eager to find out what details I will notice, what mysteries I will understand when I read it again knowing what I already do. Most likely, the stories I will experience the second and third times around will be entirely different. A book this re-readable is a rare piece indeed -- which makes me wonder if Ms. Hand has recently made an acquaintance of a Larkin or an Evienne or a Vernoraxia of her own.

[Elizabeth Vail]