Monday, 12 June 2017

Review: 'These Mortals' by Margaret Irwin

I felt in the need for something different, something magical and something old. And Margaret Irwin delivered all of this with These Mortals. First published in 1925, These Mortals tells a magical story, all while commenting on humanity with a sharp insight. Also, this novel reminded me once again why parables are actually fascinating reads, when well done. I almost wish I had read this as a child, but adult me is also very pleased to have discovered it now. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/03/2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

A powerful Enchanter, Aldebaran, discoverer of the precious Elixir of Eternal Youth, is tired of playing with the lives of men and retires to his beautiful kingdom located on the path between the earth and the moon. There, he passes his time educating his beautiful daughter, Melusine, in the intricate profession of sorcery; his only worry is that she should never experience the misery of the mortal world.
Melusine, like most children, is deaf to her father’s cautionary words and longs to see life on the mysterious planet at the end of the moon path. One day she disobeys Alderbaran and uses her magic powers to descend to Earth, landing in the peculiar kingdom ruled by the Emperor Eminondas. Melusine’s uncommon beauty causes stir among the royals and courtiers, and she soon finds herself entangled in complicated triangles and love intrigues. Unaccustomed to the etiquette and politics of the court, Melusine uses her magic powers to aid her pilgrimage among humans, but what worked well in the kingdom of her father results in some unexpected complications in the earthly empire.
These Mortals, first published in 1925, tells an enchanting tale of Melusine’s strange incursion into the world of humans where she experiences, for the first time, feelings of love, jealousy and loneliness. These Mortals, written with charm and humour, is a truly enjoyable parable which explores, through fantasy and gentle mockery, some of the ever-puzzling paradoxes of human behaviour.
I always love discovering books from the past. It is something I discovered in my first year at University, that some of the most popular authors of previous decades, even centuries, are virtually unknown to readers now. They could have outsold Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, but time has not been kind to them. Of course the reason many of these are forgotten is because they are the 18th century equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey, shocking and interesting at the moment but hardly a literary masterpiece that gets to the core of what it is to be human. At University I encountered a number of these "forgotten" best-sellers and it was fascinating to dip into them. Not all of them were as enjoyable as These Mortals, however. Now, Margaret Irwin isn't entirely forgotten, and she definitely hasn't cast aside because her writing wasn't any good. Rather, she is buried under decades of new releases and changing reader preferences. Adult fairy-tales, what These Mortals is categorised as, were not really "in" for very long time, they are definitely making a return and Irwin's beautiful novel should be at the very front of the queue.

Irwin's These Mortals is a parable, a didactic story which illustrates certain principles or lessons. Think of most Bible tales, such as 'The Return of the Prodigal Son', or famous tales like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. They are relatively straight to the point and at the end you've been taught a lesson. Although perhaps nothing could sound drearier, parables make for some of the most fascinating and long lasting stories. They can be absolutely beautiful and iconic and authors have created true masterpieces. Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes' comes to mind here. Irwin's These Mortals is much more similar to Andersen's tale than to Bible tales. She writes a lyrically beautiful story about a half-fairy, half-mortal maiden who encounters the human world and all it brings with it for the first time. Melusine, naive in a way that is charming rather than annoying, encounters deceit, love, heartbreak, fashion and betrayal for the first time and Irwin takes each of these and uses them to comment on the nature of humans. Many of the characters around Melusine are quite despicable at times, and yet their behaviour is also so recognisable to us mere mortals that we can't help but understand them. There is an incredible skill behind writing about humans like this, and Irwin makes it seem easy. She also makes it seem beautiful. These Mortals is steeped in beautiful images, with fairies that are half snake, shells that get turned into ships, and maidens who dance on moonbeams. I'm still thinking about these moments.

I absolutely adored Margaret Irwin's writing. There is something beautifully enchanting about how she weaves her words together. The pace of the novel is very calm, taking its time with Melusine's experiences in the human world, stepping aside for the experiences of the other characters, and never rushing ahead to a big twist or turn. To be cliche, These Mortals runs like a smooth river, delightfully refreshing and invigorating. Irwin also delights in commenting upon her characters in a way that reminded me almost of Jane Austen. Many first time Austen readers mistake her for being sugary sweet and quaint, missing the almost biting observations she makes between the lines. Please read the opening line of Pride & Prejudice with a sarcasm-heavy voice and tell me again it is not meant to be sarcastic. Similarly, Irwin is constantly commenting on her characters, bringing to light the things they would probably prefer to leave in the shadows, thereby actually managing to discuss those 'ever-puzzling paradoxes of human behaviour' while also being a funny read. I will definitely be reading more of Margaret Irwin's work.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored Irwin's These Mortals. It is beautiful and other-worldly, digging into humanity with charm and humour. Irwin creates enchanting images and never questions both the cruelness and the magic of the human world. I'd recommend this to fans of fairy tales and fantasy, as well as those interested in exploring parables.

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