Elizabeth Hand, Illyria (2010)


Illyria is a slim volume about a pair of adolescents trapped in their own claustrophobic world. Which is my favorite kind of story, obviously – the Flowers in the Attic kind of story! They’re first cousins – their fathers were twins, one of whom ended up having all boys while the other one had all girls. Thus, Madeleine and Rogan, the youngest members of the Tiernay clan, were born hours apart and grew up inseparable. Rogan has the voice of an angel and “looked like he’d fallen out of a painting.” Maddy worships him. Have I mentioned lately that I adore stories narrated by a naive young girl who harbors an unhealthy obsession with her glamorous older brother who eventually turns out to be your garden-variety egotistical cad who ruins the lives of everyone in his orbit? (cf. Alice Hoffman, White Horses; Kelly Braffet, Josie and Jack) Consider it mentioned. Anyway they find this secret attic crawlspace where there’s a mysterious snowglobe/theater/idek, and they spend hours and hours there, talking or kissing or doing nothing at all. I greatly enjoy stories about kids who cuddle a lot and wear each other’s clothes.

They’re Irish American; the kind that have gone to Mass every Sunday of their lives as a matter of course. They live in an era when “my mother has taken a job [in retail]” is something to be remarked upon. They try out for the school play, Twelfth Night, where Rogan’s mesmerizing turn as Feste ends up bringing down the house. Maddy, meanwhile, plays a perfectly competent, unremarkable Viola. My brother, he is in Elysium

There is an ambiguity at the center of this book. Or maybe it’s deliberate equivocation. Does industry trump talent? Does the tortoise always win the race? Does Maddy’s decades-long career as a character actor, hopping from one supporting role to another, represent the apex of what the Tierneys are capable of? Would it not have been better – swifter, surely – to set Rogan loose on the world’s stage, to watch him go supernova and burn out? I just, I am unconvinced it had to be this way. That there was no future for them. Because what if Maddie hadn’t gone to study theatre in England the winter they turned sixteen, what if Rogan hadn’t let the drugs take over his life and they’d stayed in love, can you stay for certain that it wouldn’t have worked? Their love wasn’t inherently destructive. But they lived in a society that insisted they were bad for each other (maybe they were), that they had to be separated, and afterwards they never regained the preternatural connection they possessed when they were young. I want to know that blood is thicker than water, that inappropriately close adolescent friendships can survive the floodlights of adulthood.

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