‘The beautiful are cruel, the cruel are sad, the demons are capable of good.’ Maria McMillan reviews the new novel by Elizabeth Knox, bound to be one of the year’s biggest local releases.
Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book has an awful lot going on. I’m still working it out. It’s a story about Taryn Cornick of the Northovers, who writes stories about the beauty and vulnerability of libraries, whose dead sister loved stories, whose father acts out stories in far-off New Zealand, who was undone by her sister’s murder, who coyly arranges the killing of her sister’s killer and unknowingly sets other momentous things in motion.
Taryn and her sister Beatrice grew up in and around their grandfather’s library and witness a fire there, started by their grandfather’s normally meek assistant who is in the clutches of some kind of madness. The library is saved, Beatrice is burnt but recovers. Many years later Beatrice is murdered, run down by a man who claims it is an accident but clearly had sinister motivation. Taryn loved her sister and after years of dull grief organises revenge, not by her own hand, or even by an explicit request, but by involving a likely sort – a burly sympathetic hunter called the Muleskinner – in the story of her own ravaged heart.
Things eventuate, and the body of the murderer is found a few months after his release from prison. More years pass. Taryn’s book about the physical, political, and personal threats to libraries is unexpectedly popular. “Look at us” says her friend “finally on our way”. But the festering mash of guilt, love and compromise that Taryn is steadfastly ignoring becomes too large to be contained in the world we know, so Taryn and Knox’s story fall out of this world and into another.
The story is one that cannot be told within the rules and limits of our own world. I wonder if this is why the best stories that involve magic work. Knox’s underworld allows the raging internal forces battling for Taryn’s soul to apparate, to be embodied.
Actual demons possess Taryn. Under their sway she eats raw meat, rips strips of skin off her friend’s face, arches her back, throws fits, holds odd conversations she can’t later recall. It is when a determined demon threatens her with a gun that she is rescued and “Taken” (it’s a thing) to a new world. And it is only here that Taryn understands for the first time that she has a soul and by her actions has put it in peril. She realise too, through this grand shift that she did not ask for, that her life has been saved.
We don’t need explanations of Taryn’s feelings. We watch her being built and unbuilt. We watch the journey of her salvation not through inner turmoil or epiphanies but through tussock and hot pools, communal fires and nettle tea. In worlds peopled by the goddish, by the tall, inhumane and eerily beautiful Sidhe, by demons and monsters. Taryn’s inner transformation takes up space and time. It has a smell.
Knox harnesses the old tales without it ever being tired. Taryn’s familiar journey to an underworld, to find and return with that which she needs, is explosive and surprising, new and quite brilliant. No-one behaves as you’d expect. Everyone wants something, everything changes. Knox’s heavenly underworld is hellish, the beautiful are cruel, the cruel are sad, the demons are capable of good, those lost find themselves. Everything is conditional.
Knox describes all the worlds in the book through minute and perfect details – the “hatching-dragon” sounds of a Nespresso machine, the “grinding sounds of flagstones” being dropped back into place, a stone house covered in “lichen of many colours”, the exact speed at which a printing press moves – as well as spectacular landscapes, wide bays “studded with islands”, “throngs of mangroves” seen from above, transformative, glittering lakes.
For me, the most amazing moments in this book are when the story on the page becomes transparent and I am Taken, not just by the most obvious story, the one floating on the surface of the page, but by the layers of story beneath it. Knox always works in multiple ways at once. Like the spells in the book she can control your attention. Always telling you something urgent while making you look in the other direction.
If I break certain of these enchantments and face this story front on, bring my full force of attention to the underlying story, I think The Absolute Book is about story. Every page is a declaration of love for story, for literature, for libraries. And with that, a love for the humanity and goodness of cities and civilisations in which libraries flourish. It’s a humane book. It’s an argument through story for story.
Knox’s mastery of dialogue means she injects great profundity in commonplace (or magic place) exchanges. She makes characters answer quite different questions to the ones they are being asked.
Berger and Taryn have entered another world for the first time, and are talking to something bewildering, someone not quite human:
‘The police’ said Taryn. ‘And MI5’.
The beautiful eyes lit up. ‘Like George Smiley?’
‘I think he gets everything from novels,’ Taryn explained to Berger.
Berger was exasperated. ‘Everyone gets everything from novels.’
Later in the book, Taryn is asked what she wants, by someone who can possibly make it come true.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need … People to care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.’
Knox’s complex, complicated homage to story is embodied in Taryn’s saviour, Shift – part-God, part-human, part-Sidhe. He can shift from human form to those of birds or dogs or other less ordinary things. Every 200 years Shift – who never ages – restarts his life, five years younger, and loses all memory of his previous lives. So, during each lifetime he gets other people to learn the stories of his life and to hold them in trust for him. But Shift remains competent at all the things he has ever known how to do, he still knows his craft. Like stories.
I think Shift is Story and he seems like a decent enough god to revere. He’s fallible, vulnerable, needy and interested. He’s ambitious about doing good. He’s made up entirely of what other people tell him. It makes me wonder: what if we worshipped gods that we could make from the ground up? What if we could choose the stories that our gods were made up of? What if our gods were at our mercy, what if Story was all we needed and we succumbed to it? Gave it its due?
As I write we are hearing stories of the Amazon forest burning. Some of the stories being shared on the internet about the fires are true and some aren’t. The heart-stopping pictures of the blazing and clouds might be from this year’s fires, or from last year’s not-quite-as-terrible fires. The Amazon may be responsible for 5% rather than 20% of our oxygen. Demonic Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro may be more or less culpable. The farmers starting the fires may be less greedy and more hungry. Regardless, the devastation is real. The details of who, and by how much, and how awful recede in the face of knowing the world’s priorities are dreadfully off. Something’s very wrong.
‘We didn’t know which God to pray to.’ says Taryn.
Last week my partner, my older daughter and I went to Weathering with You, Makoto Shinkai’s new movie. I didn’t like it as much as Shinkai’s Your Name, but the drawing was sublime: the splattering rain, the clouds, the cityscapes. Night times. The film focuses around a cataclysmic weather event that has already lasted many years, and even at the end of the movie has no sign of reprieve. For most of the film the genius visual aesthetic moved me more than the story itself. At the very end though one main character approaches the other after a long time apart, the rain continues to fall, he calls her by her name and rushes to her shining with joy, saying “I just have the feeling we’re going to be okay”. The audience clapped as the credits rolled and I found myself crying unexpectedly. Something enormous came together.
I thought, there are stories we need right now. We need to say be damned and keep telling them to each other over and over until we figure out ways to make them true.
I thought too, of the chapter in The Absolute Book, in which Elizabeth Knox tells a plausible story: of good, evil and the undetermined wielded to save the world; of a world that’s going to be okay. And without feeling exactly sad, or without feeling only sad, because, of course, every story contains other stories within it, I kept on crying through dinner and throughout our long drive home.
The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.