OR: Bibliomancy

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #37:-


PS Publishing hb, 296pp, £35

Elizabeth Hand is an expert at blurring fictional boundaries and dodging the bullet when it comes to genre specification, consistently producing work for which the only accurate label is quality, and this collection of four previously published novellas from PS Publishing contains some of her finest writing.

‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ is the story of a young woman, fascinated by the lives of winged insects, who is brutally raped. Later, on sabbatical in London, she gets a job in the insect house at London Zoo and slowly metamorphoses into a creature of the night herself, one who has sex with men and then transforms them into rare moths that she kills. It is a powerful and intensely moving story, beautifully written and characterised, with the pain and emotional isolation of the heroine coming off of the page, reminiscent in some ways of Kafka but with its own sense of the bizarre and mysterious. In contrast ‘Pavane for a Prince of the Air’ is almost wholly naturalistic except for a small coda, the compellingly detailed account of a friend’s death from cancer, each step in the process meticulously recorded and packed with those small touches that bring a story to life, intensely moving and yet not a whiff of sentimentality about it, ultimately a celebration of life rather than a surrender to the Grim Reaper.

‘Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol’ is the longest of these novellas and my personal favourite, as old friends whose lives have been torn apart by the passage of time and other ordeals are once again reunited and filled with nostalgia by the memory of a childhood entertainer. There is magic here, both the kind that defies our understanding of the natural world and the other kind that arises out of the human heart, the things that contain the best of who we are, here symbolised by a father’s love for his child and a friend’s willingness to attempt so much for another. Hand spares us the happy ending a less skilled writer, a writer less in tune with her audience’s sensibilities, would have opted for, giving us instead something far finer, a resolution tinged with hope. Finally we have ‘The Least Trumps’, inspired by an episode in John Crowley’s Little Big, and every bit as wonderful as its source material. Lesbian tattooist Ivy, the daughter of a famous children’s writer, discovers an unusual pack of tarot cards and inadvertently changes the world through their use. The subtlety of the plot is matched only by the cast of larger than life characters, especially Ivy’s mother the irrepressible Blakie, a celebrated writer of children’s books and unapologetic lesbian, and The Lonely Cottage, where most of the events take place, so vividly realised that it almost becomes a character itself.

An introduction by Lucius Shepard and revealing Story Notes by Hand herself round out a perfect collection of fiction, with John Anster Fitzgerald’s marvellously evocative painting ‘The Stuff that Dreams are Made of’ as a singularly striking and appropriate wraparound cover. Bibliomancy is a thing of beauty in all senses of that overused word, and fiction doesn’t get much better than this, but sadly I fear the limited edition status of the book means that this writing will not reach the huge audience it deserves. Let’s hope that either PS or somebody else produce the mass market edition that the work is crying out for.

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