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“There Was an Enchantment on Us” – A Review of WYLDING HALL by Elizabeth Hand

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Set in England in the heyday of folk-rock, the novel reconstructs a strange, transformative summer in the lives of a band as they relive the loss of one of their members. They look back on their brief residence at a large manor that is full of secrets. Told through their words the novel seems like a mystery but eventually becomes a meditation on longing, creativity, and the ways the past informs and unnerves us.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Evocative, engaging writing, with a tone that is subtle at first but that builds both the power and strangeness of the story. Good use of multiple perspectives to create atmosphere and texture that feels weird and mundane at the same time.
CONS: Slow start; a few of the voices sometimes lose their distinctiveness.

BOTTOM LINE: Wylding Hall is a story that beguiles you with its weird vibe and comfortable feeling of immersion.

Liz Hand is one of my favorite writers. I discovered her early in my adult reading life, lost sight of her for awhile, and then rediscovered her some years later because I started following The Inferior Four group blog on LiveJournal (where I had initially gone to read Lucius Shepard and then, to my delight, found three other authors I admired). Since then I have been reading her work devoutly. What makes her one of the best writers I have ever read – and this may sound odd – is that she can take subjects and characters I might not otherwise be interested in or care about and ensnare me in their stories. When I read the synopsis for Wylding Hall I once again wondered if Hand could write a story that would keep me reading, since the premise did not seem like my cup of tea.

I was concerned by the initially slow build of the novel. Told in reminiscences for a documentary, the novel chronicles a pivotal summer for the English folk-rock band Windhollow Faire,  The story unfolds in the braided narratives of the band members (Lesley, Ashton, Jonno, Will), their manager, and a few witnesses to their time spent at a sprawling country manor, Wylding Hall. That summer resulted in their greatest artistic accomplishment and a profound loss, the disappearance of their band’s leader Julian Blake. Presumed dead, Blake’s disappearance remains unsolved. But the mystery is not so much what happened to Blake as what happened to the band, and how they each recount that summer soon becomes the real story.

It won’t take long for seasoned readers of the fantastic to piece together some idea of what happened to Blake, but Hand wisely avoids some big reveal of his fate. What we do get is a fascinating study of a person being conjured out of memories, voiceless but resonant, fading from view but always present. One theme that struck me as I read was that of the past’s grip on not just our memories but our sense of self. Each of the band members is profoundly affected by that summer; Blake is like a singularity they are all drawn towards and cannot, even in its supposed absence, escape.  Blake’s disappearance creates a void that they must scramble to fill, and their attempts to make sense of his loss, and thus make sense of what he was to them when fully present, are the real meat of Hand’s story.

As stories go, it’s rather slim, as is the novel itself, which makes the complicated dance Hand performs with her prose more powerful; once you stop searching for clues or anticipating scares or thrills, the novel truly begins to work its wizardry. While I felt the novel built a bit too slowly, that subtlety serves the novel well in the second half. In terms of tension there are a few suspenseful moments, but there is no pointed, aggressive climax. What we get instead is a revelation; we see the enchantment that Will refers to (cited in my title) come to fruition, and while I knew what was coming I was surprised and delighted to feel creeped out at the novel’s end. Hand builds disquiet and disjuncture quietly; this is not a novel of thrills and puzzles, but a lengthy spell itself. Hand creates a nuanced, earthy illusion out of the novel’s carefully woven array of colorful voices. Observations that seem banal, declarations that verge on cliché, snarky asides and dramatic assertions create a tapestry of lived experience and strangeness that got under my skin.

Hand achieves that with prose that is clear, satisfying, and effortless to read. Even in a novel made up of nine different voices Hand writes fluidly but distinctively. The prose seems casual, with many asides, but everything builds with precision, and Hand is an expert at building mood and atmosphere in ways that you don’t realize until you feel it around you.  She is a master at conjuring feelings indirectly but inexorably. I love the way that small details and moments come together to create unexpected effects.

I found myself pondering the way that longing and creativity intertwine while reading the novel. This theme runs through Wylding Hall and Hand adeptly presents her narrators ‘ desires and aspirations. A necessary component of enchantment is the desire to fulfill a dream or yearning, and this novel is saturated in desire: the desire to create, the desire to love, the desire to fulfill an ideal. . . from Julian’s strange behavior to the each individual’s responses to what happened to him, desire is there. It empowers, it distracts, it shapes each narrator’s perception of reality.   Longing fuels creativity and, thus, fuels magic as well.

Magic is the heart of Wylding Hall, even if there is no whiz-bang moment of wizardry. The magic of singing the perfect song, of writing a sublime tune, of feeling fleetingly fulfilled, of remaking the world. The magic of wanting someone else, of wanting to be elsewhere. The characters are not just trying to understand Julian’s disappearance, they are trying to understand what it has done to them. They try desperately and imperfectly to reconstruct their time with him, and reveal instead their own hopes and shortcomings. The enchantment is still upon them decades after the event; they are haunted by a ghost that they continue to call back to themselves. It doesn’t matter what happened to Julian; this novel is about the ways that people use the past to make and remake themselves, and Hand does it with such a light touch, in unexpected ways, that when you put the pieces together you are startled. I’m still discovering small nuggets of information that fill out the characters. My only significant criticism here is that I felt Will and Jonno were a little too indistinct from each other at times. I had to flip back in my reading a couple of times to recall who had said what.

This book rewards a slow, savoring read because there are terrific offhand details throughout that accentuate the characters and make the story more compelling. I wasn’t sure I was going to like Wylding Hall at the beginning, but now I am again ensorcelled by Hand’s writing and her gift for making novels that are  strange and familiar, enrapturing and unnerving, all at once.

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