book by Elizabeth Hand
annotation by Kate Maruyama
I got a glimpse of Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall last summer at Readercon, and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Of course, life being life and work being work, I didn’t get to it until just last month. But the moment I opened it, I tore through.
Told in a collage format reminiscent of a rockumentary, Hand introduces us to a variety of characters with distinct voices: from the band’s manager with his outside view of things to Lesley, the sole American in the group, who is deeply enamored of the elusive and beautiful lead singer, Julian. The band has been sent to a remote manor, Wylding Hall, to record an album. The desire to remove them from all distractions and the remote nature of the manor itself creates a hyper-awareness in the summer’s observers and the variety of points of view builds its own tension as each character refers in bits and pieces to what is to come. “That’s why it was so strange about the girl.” The story is told to us in pieces, each character’s strong distinct viewpoints affecting his and her reliability in the matter. We are given bucolic surroundings and Hand creates the manor itself with mysterious twists and turns in such a tangible sense that the reader is left standing there, experiencing each moment.
Sometimes individuals have broken out into their own scenes, but often not. In the case of one beautiful afternoon in which the album’s greatest hit is recorded and a photograph is taken that will weave throughout the rest of the book, Hand gives us all of the points of view in each moment. She creates a multi-dimensional image filled with so many different kinds of want and different takes on one very specific scene, that it crackles throughout its recounting with mounting tension. The weaving of these tellings, back and forth in their own rhythm, evoke a dreaminess as well as a creepiness, as we are certain something will happen. This is storytelling at its most expert; as a reader you cannot help but surrender.
The world of the manor itself, with its shifting halls and curious encounters weaves its own mystery and fear. We know we are in the middle of the English countryside somewhere and the reader feels as cut off from the outside world the band. In this concrete space of beautifully described rooms and edges, Hand gives us turns and stairwells and “don’t go in there!” in a wonderfully creepy and unpredictable way. It’s a good reminder of how important specific, sensory physical description is in the paranormal. And it is quite lovely to feel in such good, certain hands when a supernatural tale is being woven.
Hand deftly invents an imaginary album and in the yearning descriptions of all of her characters and brings it to life. Each of them, from a different perspective tries to describe the magic of that one album. By the end of it, the reader yearns to hear it, but also somehow has a grasp on its ineffable quality.
Will Fogerty (rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin) reflects:
I’ve never known anything like it. Music, it’s always hard to describe, isn’t it? You can describe what it’s like to hear a song, how it makes you feel, what you were doing when you first heard it. And you can describe what it’s like to write it, technically, and how to play it—the chord changes, slow down here, pick it up here. A Minor 7, C Major.
But this—this was different. It’s a cliché to say something’s like a shared dream, like a movie or a concert—you know…
This wasn’t like a dream. It was like being lost; not in the dark, but in the light. Blinding sun through the windows and that fug of smoke from cigs and spliffs, motes in the air like something alive, atoms or insects all silver in the smoke. You couldn’t see to find your way;’ we couldn’t even see each other’s faces, it was so bright and so much smoke. You could only hear the music, and you followed that. Lesley’s deep voice and Julian’s sweet one, Jon grabbing the edge of his cymbal so you could hear only this thin, silvery sound. Ashton’s bass. Me and that mandolin I built from a kit; Les wailing until she nearly passed out.
The writing throughout is lovely while remaining completely economical. There is so much room for Hand to launch off into the lyrical, but she remains true to her characters and their specific feelings of nostalgia.
Despite its collage affect, or perhaps because of it, Wylding Hall hangs together of a piece. The rhythm of the cutting, the building of different tensions across stories from petty jealousies to disagreements over specific events, these are artfully measured and stitched together. The moment you open the book, you know you are in very good hands. As if taking a page from the narrative music of that period of folk rock, Hand creates a larger musical movement throughout the book and a very solid, satisfying ending. This was likely not easily accomplished and probably took a great deal of rewriting and editing.
I’m constantly exploring different points of view in my new work. How different characters see things from completely opposing perspectives and how each point of view can be exploited for its degree of reliability or grasp on the story; especially when a different point of view gives us new insight on something we’ve already experienced in the consciousness of another character. Wylding Hall is such a fantastic use of different points of view, woven together to one end. Hand has got me thinking about the balance of voice, and how snatches of story can be as illuminating as spelling out the whole thing.
When I’m putting together a novel, I’m often stopped by “this isn’t working” or, “where the hell is this going? It’s not what I set out to do.” I’m trying harder now to open up a bit, write at the outside idea all the way, listen to the secondary characters if they are starting to speak to me. They may have no place in the final draft, but this writing at can get me somewhere I’d never go if I tried to remain within the constraints of an imaginary book. I’m trying to listen to the story all the way and trust the drafting process. So often we get bogged down in visualizing the finished product while drafting. Which shelf will it fit on? Who will read it? When the truth is, we cannot truly imagine that yet and the book may take us on a different journey altogether. A number of times I’ve had books start out as one thing and turn into a completely different animal by the end. I’ve also become more content to throw out pages that aren’t working for the book. I think I cut over 100 pages in my last novel, which is now out to editors. But, had those pages not been written, I wouldn’t have arrived at the final product.
Wylding Hall is a gorgeous example of a book that is artfully and beautifully delivered. It’s important to remember as we beat our heads against our keyboards that the product is out there somewhere, and if we keep working at it we’ll get there. And novels do not emerge, fully formed. Even the most frustrating parts of the journey help us get there.