It hardly feels right to class Elizabeth Hand’s Illyria as fantasy, and yet it won the World Fantasy Award for best novella in 2008, and who am I to argue? There are only a few very short scenes of a magical character spaced throughout this story and they are subtle, unexplained and un-commented upon. These moments linger in the reader’s mind, who is free to draw their own conclusions and find their own meaning. And yet despite the essentially non-magical nature of this story, Hand has managed to elevate the simple love of two young people to an enchanted status.
Maddy Tierney is the youngest daughter of a sprawling New York family. Her neighbours are her aunts and uncles and their many children, her life the rough and tumble that comes of having boisterous and numerous relations. But Maddy has a secret, one that the other children are fast picking up on — she is deeply in love with her cousin Rogan. Their relationship feels like fate. They are both the youngest of their families and born on the same day — they could be twins but instead they are lovers.
The family knows nothing of genetics, but they know shame, and Maddy and Rogan retreat, closeting themselves in secret corners of their big houses. They seek solace in each other as Maddy finds herself largely ignored by her family and Rogan is beaten black and blue by his older brothers and, we are led to believe, his father.
But things begin to chance as they mature. Rogan’s voice breaks, revealing a hauntingly powerful singing voice. His confidence and natural humour grow. Maddy loses her braces and glasses, she slowly begins to discover who she is and where she may be heading. They audition for the school play, a performance of Twelfth Night, and their zany Aunt Kate, so colourful in comparison to the rest of the family, takes them to theatre, opening young eyes to the magic of the stage. Yet despite these changes their love for each other is constant, unwavering in its intensity, and one day the pair discover something beautiful and magical.
I would hasten to make clear that despite Maddy and Rogan’s age, Hand’s story is not one of immature love. Their passion feels mature even if they are not, and their love for each other is portrayed as both pure and sensuous. The fact that Maddy and Rogan are cousins did not bother me. Their love is born of necessity but also of fate.
Hand’s writing style has a terrible beauty, an ability to seamlessly pick up on picturesque details amid the mundane makes Illyria as lyrical as the title suggests. And yet, entwined with the beauty and purity lies a prevailing sense of unease. We fear that Maddy and Rogan’s happiness cannot continue indefinitely and any confidence they show worries us. We are fear the influence of their families, stuffy and grim as they are.
This niggling concern is emphasised by the length of the book for I found there was never time to relax. In a lengthy novel the reader can sit back, allow themselves the freedom to enjoy happy moments, knowing that they will continue for a few pages at least. But Illyria moves too fast for that. It slips past Maddy and Rogan’s lives with indecent haste. The last chapter skips forward several years and then again and again so the characters we know are now unknown.
And then there is that touch of true magic which you will have to discover for yourselves, a spark of something forbidden that transcends the natural world. It serves as a metaphor, a representation, possibly a portent. In so realistic a story it is surprising, at odds with the gritty lives of the characters.
Illyria is uplifting and heart-breaking all at once, optimistic and pessimistic in equal measure. I closed it with a heavy heart. For a story so short, it packs a mighty powerful punch.