Words In: Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark follows Cassandra Neary, a damaged, self-destructive and somewhat washed-up art photographer, who first appeared in Hand’s 2007 novel, Generation Loss. A novel with Neary as a protagonist is bound to be a wild ride. She’s prone to sudden changes in direction, abruptly taking off for an isolated island off of Maine (in Generation Loss), or to meet a shady Finnish collector of death-obsessed photographs, or chase a long-lost friend/lover who might be in Iceland. Along the way she encounters murder and threat, and often manages to multiply her own troubles by the following her own badly damaged sense of direction. Complicating all this is Cass’s painful personal history, which lingers in her present despite the passage of years. Some people deal with adversity by bucking up and getting on with things, while others self-medicate using a cocktail of antisocial behavior, emotional avoidance, and a constant flow of mood-altering substances. Cass fits in the latter, and for this reason her problems aren’t so much solved as left to accumulate, trailing in her wake.

Such a compelling central character does much of the work in engaging the reader. On top of this we have unusual settings (Reykjavik and Iceland’s outlying areas are especially exotic, well drawn here) and such intriguing milieu as the worlds of photography concerned with death and folklore, the Scandinavian Black Metal scene, and obscure underground cult-like groups dedicated to resurrecting ancient Norse worship. The book is packed with vivid details, bizarre characters, and fascinating and varied artistic and cultural obsessions.

Most of Hand’s earlier writing was constrained to Fantasy and related genres, but here she steps away from the impossible. Available Dark concerns itself with real world situations, characters and conflicts, yet these convey all the bizarre extremity of the strangest alt-world fantasy. It’s possible some of her devoted readers may be disappointed by what is essentially a mainstream thriller, but I don’t feel Available Dark suffers in the least from the lack of overt “impossible” elements. Normally if one of my favorite genre writers took a detour into the mainstream, I might say, “That’s nice, now get back to what you do best.” In this case, I find the character and settings so compelling I’d happily follow a Cass Neary series.

Hand seems to me a writer’s writer, less concerned with superficial effects or pursuit of the latest publishing industry fad, more interested in crafting artful, expressive prose and shining light upon genuine and true “real life” moments. With Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand walks the tightrope between more accessible mainstream entertainments on one hand, and on the other maintaining a high artistic standing in the unflinching exploration of the dark and exotic. Available Dark constitutes yet another proof of Hand’s status as one of the very best writers working today, in any genre. I can’t wait for more Cassandra Neary.

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