Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Saffron and Brimstone - Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

America boasts no finer, more acclaimed or accomplished literary fantasist than Elizabeth Hand. Poetry, magic, and love intermingle as she tears down the walls that separate the mundane from faerie and fancy. In this stunning collection of eight “strange stories,” the multiple Nebula Award– and World Fantasy Award–winning author weaves spells that enrapture her readers, ranging freely from Greek mythology to the contemporary nightmares of AIDS and 9/11.

The celebrated chiller “Cleopatra Brimstone” chronicles the aftermath of a brutal rape and the bizarre transformation of a young entomology student into a vengeful angel of death. An emotionally unmoored tattoo artist discovers an unusual deck of tarot cards that enables her to profoundly alter bare skin and her personal reality in the mind-expanding masterwork “The Least Trumps.” An artist attempts to capture her wayward modern-day Odysseus in oils and otherwise; a woman tragically in love isolates herself from a catastrophe-prone world; the death of a dear friend inspires profound personal reflections and strange pagan rituals; and in the brilliant concluding story, an artifact from a lost world reveals the inescapable vulnerability of our own. Odd and touching, provocative and disturbing, the selections in this magnificent collection showcase a master of the fantastic at the very peak of her storytelling powers.

Goodreads description

This collection was first released in 2006 and has just been published by Open Road as an ebook. In doing so Open Road has again revived a gem for us magic realism fans. In my review of Hand's collection Last Summer on Mars Hill (also published by Open Road) I suggested that although the author is known as a writer of speculative fiction and horror a strong case could be made for her as a writer of magic realism. I think that case is even stronger with this later collection. The stories seem more realistic, the fantastical grounded in important issues. We see again the themes that appeared in her earlier work - reworking of Greek classical mythology, isolation and loneliness, alternative lifestyles - but the stories are even stronger.  

Cleopatra Brimstone is probably the most conventional horror story in the collection. It left me unnerved, not by the horror (although that is not my favourite genre) but by the psychology. Hand carefully draws the psychology of the two sides of the central character, but then introduces a secondary character whose motivation is not clear. As a feminist, I was not sure what to make of this and the resulting ending.  Nor am I sure about the decision to place this story first in the collection. It seems sufficiently out of keeping with the other stories as to make it an unsuitable introduction.

If I had doubts about the first story in the collection I loved Pavane for a Prince of the Air. An account of the sudden illness and rapid decline of a close friend and mentor rang so true (painfully so) to me. My instinct is that this story is based on true life. For the most part the story is totally realistic. Even if the dying man is a hippy and believer in various alternative faiths, the narrator is not, which makes the ending utterly magical.

The Least Trumps is a fascinating story that explores loneliness and creativity (especially the impact of children's fiction and its writers).  This story has a theme of links to place (literally as the central character is agrophically attached to her remote island home) which appears in several stories. Hand has great skill in her portrayal of place and her characters' relationship to it.

Wonderwall is an account of an alienated young student's descent into the wild side and smashing into the wonderwall. Will she come through this self-destructive stage in her life and will her friend? The account is superbly graphic and realistic. 

The second part of the book is entitled The Lost Domain and is made up of four shorter stories or story variations. All are variations on Greek mythology.  The first, Kronia, is the most experimental section in the book - a series of recollections by a man and a woman weaving in and out of each other, creating a collective and at times conflicting impression of memories. 

In the second variation, Calypso in Berlin, Odysseus's abandoned lover Calypso may be living in the twenty-first century but she is still being abandoned. This time she plots to keep her lover when he returns.  Again we see Hand's skill at portraying place, as well as the magic of art (Calypso is a painter). 

Echo is a superbly subtle post-apocalyptic piece. Like the character in The Least Trumps, Echo lives on an island and waits eagerly for the irregular correspondence of those she loves. But then some unspecified disaster happens on the mainland and her wait becomes almost unbearable. 

The final piece also touches on an apocalypse. The Saffron Gatherers of the title appear in a wall painting in Santorini. Santorini is a place that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption and at the same time its artwork was preserved by the volcanic ash. The central character is a journalist researching the story of Santorini, who appears just about to settle down with her long-term long-distance lover in San Francisco, but before she does, history repeats itself in a shocking conclusion. 

I have said before that magic realism has much in common with poetry, in particular how themes and images are woven together to create great depth. I have barely touched on the many themes and images in this collection nor the expert way Elizabeth Hand weaves them into her story.  It is not possible with the restrictions on space in this blog. You will have to read the collection yourself and I will have to read it again.

I received this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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