Elizabeth Hand’s Cleopatra Brimstone

Cleopatra Brimstone, written by Elizabeth Hand, is suspenseful but leaves the reader questioning the main character’s motivation for her actions. While looking for coincidences in the story, I came up empty-handed. One event leads to another gracefully never sounding forced or coincidental. “Cleopatra” is a regular college student who is raped. She deals with this event the best she could by continuing with her every-day life, but she finds the need to free herself from the damaging environment she is a part of, so she moves away to another country where she is free to do as she desires. She is damaged and tries to find solace anyway she can, eventually this leads to her demise.

The questions that are left open do not hinder the enjoyment of the story. When I first realized how the plot was developing, I questioned why and how a young woman became part butterfly. I did not understand why she then turned unsuspecting, nice young men into butterflies. I have not read a lot of science fiction, so I felt this was something that I just had to let go and allow my mind to follow the storyline. When I let go of my disbelief that something like this could happen, I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

In the beginning, the reader is introduced to a young girl who is rummaging through her childhood memorabilia. When she picks up her old butterfly mobile, she feels a tingling sensation in her eyebrows, which lengthen and twist at the ends. The reader does not suspect this occurrence to be significant because prior to this scene, there is no reason to suspect that anything is amiss. As the story develops, the reader understands the physical sensation and transformation is the underpinning for progressing the story. It appears when “Cleopatra” faces any sort of stress in her life, she transforms into a crossbreed of human and butterfly. She seemed to accept this after she is raped when in college. She surrendered her body (I believe unwillingly.) to her rapist and eventually surrenders to her internal desire to transform men into butterflies whom she immediately kill then mounts in cases for her own viewing pleasure.

I question why she does not target men that are revealed to be criminals or just men she finds creepy of repulsive. This may be the point. It may be that some victims of rape find all people of that sex to be repulsive and potential predators.

Knowing that Elizabeth Hand was raped and often includes rape in her writing reveals part of her real inner being. I have always heard and continue to believe that authors write about what they know, about what they have experienced firsthand. It takes a strong author and person to reveal, share, and elaborate on such a traumatic life experience. I have to wonder if it was cathartic for Elizabeth Hand to write about rape. Even though the actual rape scene was short and nondescript, the entire story is about rape. In a sense “Cleopatra” rapes the men that she lures back to her house before killing them, raping them of their life. The fact that she sexually lures them home is disturbing because abuse victims often repeat the cycle. It is interesting that adult rape victims do not often rape others, but children who are raped or molested, often grow up to do the same to others. Why is this? What happens in a person’s brain that causes them to either repeat or not repeat the abuse?

I have thought about the conclusion of the story for quite a while. When I first read it, I did not like how it ended. I did not want the victim to be re-victimized, but that is precisely what happens. The reader enters into the mind of a serial killer, and the readers feel badly for her and even root for her. Does this happen because the main character was raped? Does the incident set it up justification? Or is it because I knew ahead of time about the author’s own rape? I wonder if someone read the same story, would they feel the same way as I do.

After taking more time to think about the ending, I find that “Cleopatra” became a perpetrator because of her traumatic past; the cycle did not end with her. And because she moved on to harm others, even though she transformed them into beautiful specimens, she became her own final victim through fault of her own. Sad.

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Elizabeth Hand Is Awesome!

Upon completion of “Cleopatra Brimstone”, I found I thoroughly enjoy

Elizabeth Hand’s writing style. While at the Stonecoast residency in January, Elizabeth read from Available Dark, and I knew then it was a book I wanted to read. Hand’s reading voice completely fit the narrator Cass Neary’s style and persona. The author sounds like she should be Cass and should be the one who is drunk and hyped up on Focalin. I don’t believe I have ever experienced such a connection between author and character before. I am glad I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth read from one of her books. Because of this experience, I want to attend more author readings.

While reading Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand’s voice remained in my head as I read Cass’s words. This was exceptionally easy in the beginning of the novel for one because I heard the author read from the introduction and two because of the way the words were strung together. I have always thought there are no coincidences in a novel. What I mean is all the symbolism, the words that are chosen, whether used as puns or not, are all purposely placed. In the introduction of Available Dark, Hand is a genius. Her main character Cass is high and generally wasted on her life. Hand does not explain what the affects of Focalin are, Cass’s main choice of drug besides alcohol, but those who are familiar with the drug know that if they are not prescribed to you, they will act like Speed. Due to Cass’s character traits, the reader knows these pills are not a prescription for her. Therefore, the reader can deduce that Cass is buzzing like she is on speed. During this section of the novel, Hand chooses words and constructs sentences that cause the reader to speed through the reading. While reading this section, I felt like I was high on some sort of Speed-like drug. It was a very cool sensation!

Once I moved on from the introduction, I was let down by the majority of the rest of the novel. Events slowed when I thought they should pick up, and I did not feel as though there was enough tension surrounding the creepy parts of the novel. For instance, Cass is hired by a well-developed creepy guy to go to Scandinavia and authenticate a collection of photos illuminating dead people. After Cass leaves the United States, the reader never sees the creepy guy again. We are told that he was murdered, but that is all. There are a number of murders in the book, but none of them are thoroughly played out. Pictures are described well enough that the reader is able to formulate the image, but there was not any tension surrounding any of the murders, the actual murders that occurred, or the photos of the murder victims. It felt like a lot of explaining was happening rather than actions. This is something that I continually struggle with, so I am glad that I am starting to pick it out in other work.

Before reading this book, we talked about looking for coincidences in a storyline. I did not feel as though there were any coincidences in Available Dark, but I did feel like a few things fell into place a little too easily. For instance at one point in the novel, we know that Cass is going to find her long lost lover (second storyline), Quinn. When she meets up with him, she is being followed, and then she is kidnapped. When she awakens, she is inside a dark trailer and sitting next to her is Quinn. I felt like this happened too easily. It was not a coincidence, but I want to work harder while I read. Even though this was a somewhat creepy story, I felt like it was a good beach-read, not a bedtime story that made me leave the light on when I went to sleep. Due to the introduction, I was hoping for the latter.

With all of this being said, I would read more of her work because I admire her writing style. And I have been told some of her other books are quite a bit better. Available Dark is not considered to be her best work.