Incest is currently thought of as having sex with someone close in your bloodline, and is one of the strongest social faux-pas possible in Western society today. (Interestingly, Merriam-Websters defines 'incest' according to law, i.e. sex with someone you are not legally allowed to marry.) The term subconsciously turning the stomach for most, kissing cousins are currently on the outside looking in when once they were an accepted part, and even in some cases, a preferred reality of society. Tackling the issue head-on in the contemporary era, Elizabeth Hand’s novella Illyria (2007) presents living, breathing people dealing with the issue, all manner of reader reaction - conscious and subconscious - the result.
Illyria is the story of Madeline Tierney, the youngest of six girls, and Rogan Tierney, her cousin, the youngest of six boys. Their fathers’ identical twins, the two even grow up on the same street, their houses opposite one another. The innocence of kissing cousins becoming more serious as the pair go through puberty, and their secret becoming ever more precarious as their two families evolve, the finding of a treasure in the attic of Rogan’s home one day turns everything upside down. But the repercussions are not immediately apparent. Life goes smoothly in the build up to their high school’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But whether the show goes on remains to be seen.
Playing with the tropes of myth and classic theater, at the outset Illyria has a timeless feel. The familial history of Madeline and Rogan an unusual one, the reader keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop—for an element of classicism to fall into place and make everything lucid. It never does, that is, unless the reader considers the ending to be fairy tale. Though starting the story in seemingly familiar territory, the realities of contemporary life gradually settle in, the classical tropes manifesting themselves in the production of Twelfth Night, only. The novella stronger for the analog, the pair’s story plays out in more mimetic than fairy tale fashion (save the ending). Remiss to go into the details, suffice to say growing older does have its pains, and indeed youth and creativity have a certain magic that once they are gone, are difficult to hold on to—especially when your lover is your cousin.
Illyria thus reads like a story written by someone who was involved with theater in high school, and looks back on the memories with enough wisdom to appreciate the pain and innocence. (Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners possesses much of the same feeling.) Love and emotion on full display, the more overt elements of the plot are easily handled by the subtlety of Hand’s narrative, nothing syrupy. A knot hanging in the reader’s throat the last several pages, in fact, the story’s voice is capable of invoking as much of a reaction to its conclusion as the initial response to kissing cousins.
In the end, Illyria is a quality novella describing a high school girl’s coming of age via the theater and love for her cousin that truly challenges the reader’s understanding of incest. Madeline’s development progressing naturally yet unnaturally, it makes the skin crawl in a fascinating, and ultimately affective manner as her story plays out. The text imbued with a love for theater, the inclusion of lines and songs from Twelfth Night in no way bog down the story, and in fact, decorate what is already a strong offering. A work resonant with real emotion, Hand once again proves she is one of the best fantasists writing today.