The Week that Was
Underground Reading: City of Brass by Edward D. Hoch

New Releases: Loss of Separation by Conrad Williams

Loss of SeparationIn Loss of Separation, Paul Roan is either the luckiest or unluckiest man on earth. As the captain of a Boeing 777, he was involved in a near miss that nearly ended the lives of hundreds of people. Although it isn't wholly his fault, he feels guilty enough that he steps down from flying. He rebuilds his life in a small coastal village, only to be hit by a car and knocked into a six month coma. He emerges from that only to discover that his girlfriend is missing and he's a wreck of a man.

All that, and he lives in Southwick, England's eerie equivalent to Lovecraftian Dunwich.

On the most basic level, Loss of Separation is about Paul's search for Tamara, his missing girlfriend. Even the first step, beginning the search, is a tough one. Paul is a complete ruin physically. He's almost entirely rebuilt; a mass of scar tissue and an invalid that can only walk a short distance each day. Mentally, he's no better - plagued by nightmarish flashbacks of accidents real and imaginary. 

Paul's amateurish investigations into Tamara's disappearance are stymied by his health. Southwick is a tiny village, but Paul's in no shape for door-to-door investigations. His snooping is like an increasingly Kafkaesque board game - he's allowed one move a day but doesn't know where to go. And even with this constraint, he starts turning up clues - too many, in fact. Tamara's absence may be the least of the village's problems. There's a serial killer preying on children and, if the evidence that Paul finds is any indication at all, this isn't a new problem. Southwick has had generation after generation of missing children, a bloody trend that goes back for centuries.

Paul isn't completely without friends, but they're an equally fragile crew. Ruth is a local nurse who has taken Paul under her wing while he's convalescing. She was a victim of an awful sexual assualt, and has her own problems to deal with, as she's now pregnant with her attacker's child. Charlie is a kind-hearted local fisherman who also helps Paul in his convalescence, but he's also carrying dark secrets surrounding the death of his young son. Finally, Amy, another accident victim - one that woke up in her hospital bed with the (supposed) ability to see deathly auras. Unsurprisingly, Paul is surrounded by them.

Alternatively helped and hindered by his gang of macabre Scoobies, Paul slowly begins to unpick the mysteries surrounding Southwick. His investigation into the killing and his missing girlfrined is grueling and parinful, but there's more at stake than he ever would've suspected.

Despite the town's many creepy figures and the promise of occult terrors, the real conflict in Loss of Separation is all internal. Paul's a badly depressed man (frankly, with good cause). He's taunted by visions, wracked by guilt and tortured by doubt. He doesn't understand why he's not dead (twice over) and certainly doesn't feel that he deserves to live. The "outsider" treatment given to him by the majority of Southwick doesn't help either - the locals hold him at arm's length and use him as a variant of sin-eater, to dispose of their dirty little secrets.

Paul has to convince himself not just to act, but that he is worthy of acting. Initially, he doesn't want to find Tamara because his first impulse is to believe she left him - and his second is to think that she was justified in doing so. Paul's response to every situation is to wonder how or why it might have been his fault. He doesn't see himself as a victim. Instead, he identifies himself as the unintentional perpretrator - carrying his guilt to its hyperbolic extreme. Similarly, he's so overwhelmingly grateful for any act of charity that he never thinks to investigate its source. Paul thinks about himself as an object (a broken one) rather than an actor. Loss of Separation's big breakthrough is when Paul takes control of his own life rather than letting it be written by the acts of others.

The Lovecraftian comparison also benefits from a few atmospheric parallels. The village of Southwick is a small, insular society with old families, dark secrets and a thinly-veiled hostility towards newcomers. The sea and the weather also have roles to play - the book is punctuated by damp and gloomy rain and Mr. Williams perpetually reminds the reader of the close proximity of the ocean, and all that it symbolizes. Still, where Lovecraft's cosmic fear is grounded on man's inability to control his own destiny, Mr. Williams' Loss of Separation is about the reverse. By confronting our fears, we overcome them. The concept of "fate" is a hostile one; when we leave things to destiny, the odds are never in our favor.

The result is a demanding read that is also oddly optimistic. Paul's life is horrible and his tentative adventures generally result in bone-aching failure. But the very fact that he sets out on upon them is a testament to both his bravery and his resiliance. This isn't the "triumph of the human spirit" over adversity, it is a hard-earned draw between the two. Ultimately, this why Loss of Separation makes for great horror: an empathetic, flawed hero desperately clinging to hope in a world that only offers fear. Mr. Williams has written an outstanding book that might be Solaris' finest release to date.

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