Bookshelf – Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand (2007)

There’s not much to like about Cass Neary, the New York photographer who anchors this intriguing, uneven, but ultimately entertaining mystery of artistic crime. If she’s awake, she’s lying. When you’re not looking, she’s stealing. Her anger is always on the prowl, seeking any whiff of a slight. She is high much of the time and when she’s not, she’s drunk. “I have,” she says, “as many words for ‘hangover’ as an Inuit has for snow.”

Cass was a star at age 20, famous for photographing the human detritus of the city’s punk era: needles in arms, semi-public sex, and young bodies, dead from ODs on the streets. Three years later, her fame is flamed out. Emotionally cauterized by a rape, doped into stagnation, she can’t make pictures anymore. And when she does try, she is told her images are both passé and overly violent.

“It’s too raw,” a gallery rep says. “It’s too much like being right inside someone’s head.”

“It is inside someone’s head,” Cass answers. “It’s the inside of my head.”

Rejected and angered, Cass retreats. Two decades later she remains sheltered — working in a bookstore stockroom, hiding out from everything but her rage – when an opportunity arrives via an old friend: a magazine assignment to interview and photograph a reclusive photographer, Aphrodite Kamestros, who published two books of dark, haunting images and then disappeared to an island off the coast of Maine. Cass is reluctant, but takes the job because Aphrodite’s work was a guiding spirit of Cass’s own.

From this point on Cass steps through the looking glass into a world where nothing is what, or who, it seems to be. Contrary to the Maine farmer’s oft-quoted quip, “you can’t get there from here,” in Cass’s version of Maine you can definitely get there, but you probably shouldn’t go.

Heavy with colorful dialog, the story sprints through an obstacle course of missing persons, aging hippies, clannish townsfolk, and artists in the clutch of malevolent muses. With a few exceptions, it’s all fun stuff.

“Generation Loss” has pretensions of being more than just a mystery – and it fulfills some of them when it describes the magic of seeing and making photographs (especially with film) – but it works just fine as a somewhat edgy, somewhat quirky whodunit.

Bookshelf – Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry

Pro tip: When an epigraph cites the Book of Job, you know there’s suffering ahead.

Tom Kettle is the Job of Dublin. A decorated detective with the Irish national police who arrives at retirement not with the joy of an ex-cop looking forward to unburdened days, but bereft of all that he loved and ladened with sadness. Tom is awash in the wake of tragedy, at times so immersed he cannot distinguish the ache of memory from the pain of reality.

What scant solace Tom manages to find during his retreat to a granny flat in an ancient castle, disappears like sea mist in the night sky when he is drawn back into an old case involving sexual predation and perverted priests. Suddenly, he is deprived of what to him is “the whole point of retirement, of existence – to be stationary, happy and useless.”

But Old God’s Time – the title referring to a period beyond memory – is not a cold-case yarn as such (even if it were, it would be lifted beyond the normal realm of the trope by Barry’s lyrical and poetic writing, occasionally liberated from form, occasionally punctuated with the vocabulary of quotidian brutality). Yes, Old God’s Time, is a mystery, but the unraveling of secrets only serves as the vehicle for Barry’s deeper investigation, that of the enigmatic completeness of love and the bottomless whirlpool of loss.

Within these emotional swirls, where what is true and what is imagined intertwine, Tom struggles to find firm footing. He harbors dark truths, about himself and about his late wife, June, who he loved more than life and who, afflicted by her own haunts, “had survived everything but survival.”

In the end, what saves Tom from the bleak remains of his life is the embrace of a simple fact: of all that he’s done, of all the villains he’s dealt with, of all the erosion of his faith in human nature, he wants only one thing: “to be a believer again, in something.”

And what is that? “His life, his little life?” he thinks. “The fog edged away from the shore of himself, the sea opened like a stage in a theatre, the helpful sun burned in its element, there was a truth told to him, a truth, in his curious age, in his palpable decay, that there at the heart of it, there at the heart of it, forever and always, as June.”

Old God’s Time demands patience. Go too fast and you’ll miss Barry’s lingering eye. But bide your time, wrestle over the meanings of Tom’s untethered drifts, and be rewarded by an ending that accelerates as the cold case melts in a furnace of truth.