First published in 2008 in the United States, Generation Loss is appearing for the first time in the UK thanks to Constable & Robinson on 20 June. It’s the debut crime novel of Elizabeth Hand, who has already made her name writing horror, and is the prequel to Available Dark which RoughJustice reviewed here on Crime Fiction Lover last year.
The book introduces Cassandra Neary, whose mother died in a car accident when she was young, and whose father was emotionally distant. Cass always knew she was different anyway, able to sense damage in the people around her. She fell in love with photography because she could capture that damage when a subject’s expression changed – but also when they were asleep… or dead. Moving to New York, she joined the punk scene and shot a book full of dead junkies which projected her into the city’s art crowd. But booze, drugs and an eventual rape left her scarred both physically and emotionally.
Fast forward to the present and she’s offered the chance of interviewing one of her favourite photographers for Mojo. Aphrodite Kamestos is a rich recluse living on a freezing island off the Paswegas peninsula, Maine, once home to a commune. It’s a chance to reignite her photographic career so she rents a car and drives up. Staying at a motel for one night, before getting a ferry to the island, she meets a teenage girl called McKenzie Libby who is dying to get out of backwater Maine. She also sees a few have-you-seen notices posted – young people and family pets have been disappearing. Locals reckon the teenagers are running away to New York, or even further south. And the pets, they’ve been killed by vicious woodland critters called fisher cats, which are like small wolverines.
Cass gets a boat to the island, but Aphrodite knows nothing of the interview and refuses to take part. Wondering what’s going on and if she’s been set up, Cass looks at the original prints of the woman’s work, experimental landscape pieces produced on special paper that are far more compelling in real life than copied in a book. Hence the title Generation Loss – each time you copy an image it loses some of its integrity. Meeting people like Aphrodite’s son Gryffin, boatman Toby and local eccentric Robert, Cass is shown photography by someone else who has taken Aphrodite’s style and advanced on it in an unusual way. The pictures have a ritualistic beyond life and death quality to them. She’s told it’s the work of Denny Ahearn, another recluse and one-time lover of Aphrodite. No wonder the woman went mad. Her art has been stolen and surpassed.
Back on the mainland, McKenzie Libby has gone missing. Did she run off to New York, or to Florida? Has she had an accident in the woods? Or worse? The sherif would like to talk to Cass about her encounter with the Libby girl. When Cass makes one more attempt to interview Aphrodite the woman is drunk and frantic. Things go horribly wrong. Cass senses that this island isn’t right, and wants to find out why she’s been summoned there, and who Denny Ahearn is.
Cass Neary is a pill-popper who slugs whiskey and pukes with all the nihilistic gusto of a washed up old punk. She’s attracted to men and women, but most of all she’s drawn to photographs that illuminate the line between life and death. She has an eye for faces and feelings, but also for landscapes, even though she’s a fish out of water in this isolated setting. But beyond this fascinating, though not always likeable character, Elizabeth Hand has crafted a crime novel of literary quality. Think of a much darker and more intense version of Donna Tartt, and you’re nearly there. The motif of the fisher cat – a deadly, ghostlike hunter – is used symbolically to great effect as Cass slowly realises she might be on the trail of a serial killer.
Starting slowly with plenty of dark texture, Generation Loss builds to a deep, ominous and horrific crescendo. This book would make a brilliant gift for anyone who loves photography as well. It’s not clear right now whether Elizabeth Hand will be writing further crime novels. Generation Loss is a brilliant read so, someone, please tell her she must!
CFL Rating: 5 Stars