Illyria (or: why Elizabeth Hand rocks, part 97)


Elizabeth Hand, IllyriaThere is a Morrissey song echoing at the back of my mind as I sit down and attempt to write something about Elizabeth Hand’s World Fantasy Award winner Illyria. “And I just can’t explain it, so I won’t even try to” - that’s from “Now My Heart Is Full”, the opening track of Mozzer’s 1994 album Vauxhall and I, but you already knew that, right? In any case, those lines very much apply to Illyria, as well. It seems to me that, sometimes, the more you enjoy something - a painting, a song, a book, a particularly beautiful sunset - the harder it is to convey it later, to those who weren’t there. I read Illyria in one delicious sweep during my summer holidays, in a hot tub of all places. (This, I realise, makes me sound like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of book blogging - oh, I wish!) 

It is a short and sweet read, just shy of 140 pages, so it’s a great book to take with you into the hot tub. Or, indeed, the bathtub if you feel slightly less extravagant. This is just one of many great things with Illyria. Here are a few more: it is a beautifully realised and unorthodox love story, as moving as it is exquisitely written. Like many other of Elizabeth Hand’s novels, it is an hommage to and testament of the raw power of art, with heaps of references to literature and culture that blend seamlessly into the story. (More where that came from if you read on!) You emerge from reading it with a strong sense of having read something magical. Truly good books create unique worlds that the reader dives into and doesn’t want to leave. As I got out of that hot tub, slightly dazed and looking every inch of a 5’6 prune, I had that exact feeling. Illyria is, I suppose, technically a young adult novel but it really is an ageless novel, both in terms of its target audience and life span. It is no secret that I worship the books of Elizabeth Hand, but this is the best one I have read so far (and by now, I have read almost all of them). On 8 September at 6.30 pm, I will be interviewing Elizabeth Hand at the Uppsala English Bookshop. If you want to read something of hers before then - and I really hope you do, no  pressure or anything - this is an ideal pick. If you think I’m being annoyingly vague on the plot, yes, you are correct. I happen to believe that the less you know what a book is about as you start reading it, the better. Not always, but with some books. When I picked up Illyria, I knew exactly four things about it: 

  1. That it, in some way, dealt with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (correct, as it turned out)
  2. That the two main protagonists were cousins (correct - of the kissing cousins variety)
  3. That it was of novella length (correct - and a very astute observation to make, I must say)
  4. That I would like it very, very much (also correct)

Now, that is pretty much what you need to know beforehand, as well. Oh, and if you’re already a big fan of Elizabeth Hand, you will enjoy noticing  all the essentially Hand-esque little details and themes (the art as a saviour and destroyer thing, the punk thing, the queer thing, the magical and unexplained teamed up with the achingly real... and, having recently read Glimmering, I particularly enjoyed that a decaying Yonkers mansion plays an important role). It is a wonderful introduction to the genre defying, darkly glorious brilliance that is Elizabeth Hand, and I can almost guarantee that you will read it in one sitting. (The hot tub part optional.)

Also recommended

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand, Radiant Days

Another ageless YA novel from the ever prolific Hand, who has published three novels so far this year (one of them a reprint of Glimmering, a dystopic near future sci-fi novel that - surprise - also comes highly recommended). I love the idea behind this book: what if the lives of a teen artist from 1977 and one of history’s most famous and admired teen poets from the 1870’s somehow, by the power of their own art, intertwined? Radiant Days is a fantasy novel with strong literary and artistic themes, where struggling art student Merle - another one of Hand’s amicable screw-ups - meets Arthur Rimbaud (yes, THE Arthur Rimbaud). I was not quite as blown away as I was by Illyria but this is, no doubt about it, a tale brimming with creativity and magic, blessed with Hand’s usual stylistic elegance and flawed, beautifully real characters. As a bonus, it made me want to explore Rimbaud beyond what I’ve learned from Patti Smith (which is actually quite a lot, now that I think about it). 

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Broken Harbour by Tana French  The fourth, and eagerly awaited, installment of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series - which can be read separately, as each new book features a new main character, always someone who has had a smaller part in previous books  - just might be the best yet. On paper, Broken Harbour seemed like the perfect place to raise a family. Sea views, luxurious housing, and almost affordable prices made the Spain family leave central Dublin and put all their savings into what they thought would be their dream Home. A few years later, Broken Harbour not so much stands as stoops half-built, a victim of the financial crisis. Tragedy strikes as three members of the Spain family are found dead in their home, while the fourth one - Jenny, the mother - is rushed to hospital in critical condition. When the Dublin Murder Squad’s star detective Michael “Schorcher” Kennedy arrives at the crime scene, he has a pretty good idea of what happened inside the Spain residence. Or so he thinks... The Spain murder case will not only make Scorcher question everything he thought he knew about law enforcement work; it will also force him to dive back into his own traumatic past. 

Broken Harbour is a nail biter of a thriller as well as a gripping take on the financial crisis, marriage, and what happens when the divide between life as you dreamed it and life as it turned about becomes an abyss. There is no doubt in my mind that Tana French is one of the most talented crime writers out there today. I’m already looking forward to next book.

Die For You by Lisa Unger

Die For You by Lisa Unger  If you’re a fan of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, you should do yourself a favour and pick up a Lisa Unger novel. Like Coben and Barclay, she writes unputdownable thrillers with more loops ahead than a rollercoaster. At the core of most of her books is that most haunting of questions: can you ever truly know someone? The Hollows series, which to this date consists of two books (Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend), is superior to the standalones I’ve read so far, but that doesn’t stop Die For You, a standalone set in Manhattan and Prague, from being a tense, fast-paced read. My next Lisa Unger novel will be her brand-new standalone, Heartbroken, which judging by the excerpt I’ve read may rival The Hollows books. It’s a great feeling to have found a new, reliable thriller writer, and page turner aspects aside, I especially like Unger’s sense of place. The settings of her books, whether a small, seemingly idyllic town or big, rambling city, always feel incredibly real and vivid. I'm a sucker for a great setting, so this is a big, big plus in my book. Another one to look out for!