Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand was born in 1957 and grew up in New York, pilule just outside of the city; she went to the Catholic University of America and studied drama and anthropology. Currenty she divides her time between Camden Town, London, and Maine, both of which are used as settings in this novel. Her other works include Waking the Moon, Glimmering, and Black Light, all of which I own but haven’t read in years. She has written movie novelizations as well as novels and short stories; she also seems to have co-authored a series of comic books for DC and some novels in the Star Wars universe.

Mortal Love follows several men and their intertwining encounters with a deadly but beautiful woman over the years. Radborne Comstock, an American painter, first meets her in an insane asylum out in rural England in the 1880s; his grandson Val(entine) sees her first in dreams and visions and is eventually medicated to stop his visions. Daniel Rowlands, an American living in contemporary London to write a book about Tristan and Isolde, meets her through a friend of his. Each develops an obsessive passion with her, and she indulges them, serving as a muse to each of them in various ways. Is she the same woman in all three times? And what is she searching for?

This is one of those fantasy novels that falls just on the edge of what’s called literary fiction, and indeed, it was a Washington Post Notable Book. The underlying subject of the novel is the pre-Raphaelite artists and poets; a couple of them even show up as characters, and it’s obvious that the author did extensive research to fit her story between the lines. The chapters of the book each open with quotations, generally relevant, and most of them are of the pre-Raphaelite era, as well. Of course, Ms. Hand wishes to deal with the seamy underbelly of that group of men: not the pretty rounded women in their fairy-tale paintings, but the deep erotic undertones and the insanity that can come along with fairy tales and fairyland.

The characters are darkly fascinating; I don’t think there’s a single one of them whom I liked unreservedly. Radborne Comstock is a little naive, I’ll give him, and primarily appears to have fallen into a weird situation, rather than anything else. However, he still succumbs to the dark obsession, if only briefly. Val is, especially after his stint in a mental hospital, a dissolute pseudo-musician who drugs and womanizes his way through the world (although he does own a cool motorcycle). Daniel Rowlands seems to be okay, but he falls the furthest and has the worst reaction to the mysterious woman, and it made me think a little poorly of him, seeing him in such extremity and willing to do so much for someone he actively knows is bad for him. It’s more like a drug addiction than anything else.

This is definitely a work for adults; there’s a lot of vulgarity and disgustingness, both in regards to sex and violence. One of the characters at the insane asylum in rural England is an insane murderer who lives on eggs, which he also uses to make tempera paint, and who is just plain frightening and filthy. The themes are also a bit subtle; catching all the clues to figure out the mystery might take more ability to parse between the words than most young readers can supply. Despite that, it was surprisingly easy to read; I finished it in a relatively short amount of time, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’d recommend it for adult readers who aren’t put off by grotesqueries and who might be interested in art and works with large mythic themes. 4.5/5 stars.

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