February 10, 2012

A chilly tale in Iceland

By Elizabeth Hand
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Available Dark is dark, all right. It almost seems as if author Elizabeth Hand is not so much penning a novel as sending a series of cries into the night.

Hand’s main character, Cass Neary, first appeared in the cult hit Generation Loss, and here she has returned in a blistering story that will sear the pages from your fingers. Cass is now a weary middle-aged alcoholic and speed freak who lives on the very edge, her promise as a photographer faded after her one brilliant book, Dead Girls, spiraled briefly into the limelight.

Rewards for the reader are found in the author’s prose, brilliant and acute.

From her bleak corner of Manhattan, Cass responds to an e-mail from a mysterious client in Finland, a collector of the macabre and murderous—a genre Cass is immersed in and drawn to. The collector wants Cass to assess the value and provenance of a small cache of black market photographs taken by an iconic photographer with an “eye for the beauty in extinction.” Cass views the group of five photos depicting violent death scenes, and verifies their authenticity by phone with her client. Later that day she leaves Helsinki on a flight to Iceland, following up on another obsession: the search for a long-ago lover. Iceland overwhelms Cass; she thinks: “The whole … country was like The Birds, if the birds had won.” Once in Reykjavik, she finds herself in escape mode after she learns that both the collector and the iconic photographer have been brutally murdered, and the photo studio destroyed.

There’s no respite on any page in this dark story, as Cass works to save herself and unravel the deadly skein that binds together a handful of people involved in the creation of the photo death scenes. The desolate, perpetual twilight of Iceland’s terrain lends itself to the telling of this tale, which is peopled with a stunning cast of characters—from Quinn, the hollow-eyed lover of Cass’s youth; to an albino dealer in cult recordings; to a reclusive former black metal guitarist who inhabits a Quonset hut in remotest Iceland with his collection of artifacts and Icelandic folklore, and who speaks in a voice “so deep it was as though the stones spoke.”

There are no happy endings in Available Dark. However, rewards for the reader are found in the author’s prose, brilliant and acute, shot through with glimpses of humanity that may come to inhabit your dreams.

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Available Dark

Available Dark

By Elizabeth Hand
ISBN 9780312585945

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