Elizabeth Hand's 'Illyria,' about a pair of young, theatrical lovers

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By Lloyd Rose
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

ILLYRIA

By Elizabeth Hand

Viking. 135 pp. $15.99

True fans of Elizabeth Hand may have already read "Illyria," which was published in Britain in 2007 and won a World Fantasy Award. Her best-known previous novel in this country is "Mortal Love," a lush blending of fairy lore, madness, art theory and romance. The heart and end of that book was loss. The romanticized beauty of fairyland -- which can make poorer fantasy novels so icky -- proved to be a lure and a trap, not unreal, exactly, but heartbreakingly unattainable.

After "Mortal Love," Hand published "Generation Loss," whose portrayal of gritty suffering is as strong as its fantastical elements. And now "Illyria" can be seen as a coda to both these books: Adolescence gives way to middle age, and magic to the ordinary. It's called growing up.

Madeline and Rogan, cousins in a 1970s Hudson Valley town, are two halves of one soul, perfect lovers who tryst beneath the porch of an old mansion, a true underworld, "dim and cool and smelling of earth and old paint" and peopled with garden gnomes that remind Madeline of grave monuments. In winter, they find a secret lovers' hideaway in the attic and discover a toy theater with curtains and scenery and tiny burning footlights. Glittering fake snow falls behind the little proscenium. There are no actors, though. And mysteriously, the toy is too large to fit through the opening into the attic.

This miniature theater, which Hand wisely never explains, represents the heightened excitement of adolescent love and the hope of carrying that romance into the real world. Madeline and Rogan audition for their high school's production of "Twelfth Night" and are cast, but not (as Madeline had dreamed) as the twins Viola and Sebastian. Instead, Rogan is given the role of the melancholy clown-singer Feste, revealing a beautiful voice to go with his fairy-prince good looks.

That glitch in Madeline's fantasy is the first crack in her and Rogan's enchanted world. Others follow. Hand refuses to have things explode in fine, sorrowful catastrophe. Instead, our hero and heroine's petty human limitations and weaknesses wear them down to mortal size. At the end, the toy theater finally has figures on its stage, and the cousins' reaction is meant to be comfort enough, for them and for the reader. It has to be; it's all that's left.

Rose is a former chief theater critic for The Post.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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