Books of the Week: Elizabeth Knox, fantastically
Jane Stafford is wowed by the latest novel by Elizabeth Knox - and a reissue of her classic novel, The Vintner's Luck.
When Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck was first published in 1998, it was seen as having two outstanding features. First, it was set in nineteenth-century France. A novel, authored by a New Zealander, not set in New Zealand? Wasn’t there a rule against such fancifulness? Wasn’t it a category error of an inexplicable kind? What did Knox think she was doing? And, second, counter to the often grim realism which had been the local literary voice since the 1930s, Knox’s novel contained elements of things that were not, could not, be real. One of the characters was an angel, for heaven’s sake. Beelzebub had a walk-on role.
In the intervening 20 years, local reader expectations have relaxed, and the generic conventions of magic realism and fantasy in local writing have become, if not common, then not uncommon, not least thanks to Knox’s successive works of adult and young-adult fiction. Yet The Vintner’s Luck, reissued by Victoria University Press, still stuns with the manner in which it confidently and casually sets out a narrative which, inventively collapses heaven and earth, human time and earthly time.
The novel tells the story of Sobran Jodeau, a vintner in early nineteenth-century Burgundy, who has been a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, who cultivates his land, who marries, perhaps not wisely, who suffers the tragedy of his young daughter dying, whose community is wracked by the mysterious murders of several young women, who forms a friendship with the local aristocrat and free-thinker Aurora, and so on – the vicissitudes of the everyday, albeit two centuries and a hemisphere away.
And then, stumbling home late one night, Sobran encounters the angel Xas, a stunningly corporeal figure, dropped into the landscape of the real – and dropped into the literary narrative of realism – as a disruption to both:
Xas was white-skinned, smooth. Even his mouth was pale, more blurred than coloured, like a wine stain wiped on the mouth of a statue. But Xas was no statue. Sobran could see his blood moving, a vein in the angel’s neck that pulsed, and with each pulse variations of brightness in his skin, like cloud shadows passing across a wheat field, each pass of light a surprise.
It is a feature of Knox’s imagination that Xas comes accompanied by a Christian framework that is partly and intriguingly reformulated. Xas, Sobran discovers, is a fallen angel, one of those who rebelled against God and were cast into hell (see Milton’s Paradise Lost for the details), and is thus, technically, a demon. But heaven, in Xas’s telling, doesn’t seem much of a loss. God is described as "the god of ledgers"; angels’ "inviolate nature" means they are rather blockheaded. People in heaven are not the same as they had been in their earthly existence – they are "distillations", lacking "liveliness and vitality", all the oddness and inconsistencies of human existence extinguished. Heaven is original, essential, and hell the realm of copies. But this means that the inhabitants of hell are readers and they have plenty of material: "Destroyed originals go to heaven. You can find a copy of anything copied in hell."
The power of the novel is not only found in these theological constructions and subversions, enjoyable though they are. It is also concerned with Xas’ life in the human community he drops into (literally – he has wings), the force of the love between him and Sobran, which, as in myth and fairy story, contains tragedy – if an immortal loves a human, loss in inevitable: "I had to have you," Xas tells Sobran, "someone I could lose forever."
So The Vintner’s Luck can be read as a realist historical novel with an admixture of angel; Knox’s latest work, The Absolute Book, operates on an entirely different scale.
It begins within the norms of realism. Taryn Cornick is the author of a globally successful book about the lost and destroyed libraries of history. She is also the survivor of tragedy, her sister Bea, some years before, being the victim of an inexplicable and random murder. When Taryn is offered the chance of revenge, brutal and extra-judicial, she accepts. One can imagine a straightforward plot ensuing – growing guilt, the possibility of blackmail, legal investigations, and so on – and indeed we get all these. But there is another world operating alongside Taryn’s recognisable world of family, work, marriages, book shops, and literary festivals. It is a world which she is already connected to by virtue of her grandfather’s guardianship of the Firestarter, a box which contains a scroll, upon which is written .... well, read on.
The Absolute Book is a tour de force in world building – cosmos building, perhaps. Both science fiction and fantasy literature build worlds – their readers do not import their knowledge of their own world into the text – everything, all details, manners, histories, social contentions and relationships, must be invented and conveyed in a manner which is convincing, comprehensive, and which sits gracefully within the narrative. It is a huge task, and, in a bad writer, can make for a wearying read. But, done well, it can be a source of great readerly delight and amazement.
Knox’s writing has an extreme, dramatic intensity, both visual and emotional, an exactness, and an elegance of expression which result in an effect that is utterly convincing and at times profoundly alarming. Indeed, the reader – this reader – often feels as if they have been grabbed and shaken by some unknown shapeless monster – something like a version of the ‘forcebeast’ that is conjured up in the latter stages of the novel. Taryn is possessed by a demon while driving along a country road; those fleeing a forest fire are suddenly protected by a plume of water which envelops and shields them as the forest is consumed; Taryn visits Purgatory, arid and featureless but with a hospital and a railway system, to find and question her dead mother. Landscapes shift; birds talk; magic, termed as "makings", provide ingenious forms of support for material life – cooking, home maintenance, care for the injured; and there are glamour spells which seduce and entrance.
Books and libraries are central motifs throughout, though Knox is cheerfully democratic about her literary references – The Da Vinci Code, Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, and Jack Reacher all appear. Taryn’s father is an actor in a television series not unlike Game of Thrones and talks about other projects with someone in Wellington called Peter. And there are other, more literary echoes – Tolkien without the pomposity, CS Lewis for adults, and especially Ursula Le Guin, with her ability to present articulated, comprehensive new worlds. She would have loved this book.
Fairytales of the most grim and gnomic kind are another of the narrative’s underpinning – Knox cites Katherine Briggs’ collections in her acknowledgements. The Absolute Book’s other world is called Sidh and its inhabitants are the sidhe, the term in Irish mythology for the fairy host. The WB Yeats poem "The Hosting of the Sidhe" has as its refrain "Away, come away; /Empty your heart of its mortal dream", which seems apt for this work. Taryn’s family home is near Tintgel and there are shades and flickers of Arthurian legend and motifs throughout – Neve, a leader of the sidhe, refers to lending her sword to "your Welsh King", a sword that becomes inconveniently struck in a stone table when the sidhe and the demons of Hell meet to negotiate. But there are also talking ravens, and, in a nice riff on awkward questioners at literary events, Taryn’s session at Auckland’s writers festival is disrupted by someone who seems very like the Norse god Odin.
Fairy stories, and the ballads that narrate them, are where the human and fairy world intersect, usually not smoothly. Their plots often lack motive and context; bargains can be struck but are not without consequence. In the medieval ballad "Tam Lin", Tam Lin is taken by the queen of the fairies when he is hunting and falls from his horse. He explains the terms of his imprisonment:
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
At the end of every seven years,
We pay a tithe to Hell.
I am so fair and firm of flesh,
I’m feared it be myself.
Knox does not reference Tam Lin but a "tithe to Hell" that the ballad describes is a central part of The Absolute Book. In the Sidh, the inhabitants have eternal life and can "take" humans to join them, often choosing the poor, oppressed and enslaved from throughout history. But these human inhabitants are restricted to 200 years, "a time limited good", in the gardens of the Sidh, after which they are delivered to the Hell – or at least to Purgatory. Shift, part sidhe, part human, the little god of the marshlands, has an opportunity to end this cruel dispensation in a Christ-like sacrifice – but, with Taryn’s help, chooses a different route. Now read on.
The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press Classic series, $30) and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35).