In fantasist Hand’s crowded seventh novel, the collision of our known world with the lushly erotic, magic-inflected one of “faerie” bedevils mortal protagonists.
A perilously seductive eternal feminine figure—variously, the Iseult of medieval legend, or a kind of Lamia, or Undine—delights, entrances, and effectively destroys the generations of men who fall under her spell. For example, there’s 19th-century American painter Radborne Comstock (obviously modeled on N.C. Wyeth), who while studying in London accepts employment at Sarsinoor, an asylum on the Cornish coast run by art collector Thomas Learmont. Among Learmont’s patients are “mad” painters Jacobus Candell and (an incarnation of “The Woman” herself) beautiful Evienne Upstone. Radborne’s infatuation with the latter is recapitulated by his grandson Valentine, a deranged and troubled painter whose ghostly encounter with a naked woman in a painting colors his life and work, inspiring a rich fantasy world reminiscent of the classic Arthurian tales and their recurrence in the Welsh story cycle Mabinogion. And, contemporary journalist Daniel Rowlands, while researching a study of the romantic story of Tristan and Iseult, becomes smitten with Larkin Meade, a former mental patient whose power over Daniel leads him to the ruins of Sarsinoor, as Hand (Black Light, 1999, etc.) deftly plaits her three narrative strands together for a smashing dénouement and finale. Mortal Love contains numerous echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but it’s an original work of considerable sensuous force—thanks to entertaining cameo appearances by amusingly libidinous and hysterical poet A.C. Swinburne and truculent historian-folklorist Lady Wilde (Oscar’s mother), as well as Hand’s detailed mastery of the gorgeously overstuffed milieu of the pre-Raphaelite artists, whose own tangled sexual history helps to maintain this novel’s engagingly humid temperature.
Great fun, in an impressive synthesis of bygone times and forgotten lore.