The human condition in extremis, Anna Rogers

Wake
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864737700

“We have experiences that push us out of the flow of time. We react as if the worst hasn’t already happened. We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love.” As the people of Christchurch and Canterbury know all too well, a few seconds can be enough to alter the world, to draw an ineradicable line between the known and the unknown. But what if the defining, the unbelievable event is not a natural disaster? What if there is no explanation for a sudden madness that causes people to kill themselves and one another in gruesome ways? What if a peaceful Tasman Bay settlement is cut off from the rest of the world, with only a handful of survivors left to divine what has happened and how they can reconnect with their former lives?

This is the premise for Elizabeth Knox’s compelling new novel: but wait, there’s more. The town of Kahukura is surrounded by an invisible force field – the No-Go, the 14 survivors call it – which destroys anyone or anything that attempts to penetrate it. And it appears that those who have been spared are not alone: something is in their closed world with them, worrying away, perverting personalities, creating divisions and fear and suspicion. This scenario, of a small group thrust together by the unforeseen and trapped by or with a malevolent force, is not new, of course, but Knox gives it her own distinctive and memorable twist.

So, who are the 14? First encountered is Constable Theresa Grey, local policewoman, her training and usually capable persona subverted by the horror. Another major player is emotionally constipated American lawyer William Minute, visiting the area for work. Also in the cast are DOC ranger and kakapo protector Belle Greenbrook; Maori fisherman, Bub Lanagan; retired filmmaker and devoted husband, Curtis Haines; family man, Dan Hale; Holly and her elderly mother, Kate; obsessive runner, Lily Kaye; teenage Oscar Bryce, separated from his parents and seeking comfort in caring for the family cat; and gentle nurse, Jacob Falafa, and his troubled drug-taking mate, Warren.

Most interesting among the group, though, is Sam Waite, a young woman who has been working at the local rest home. Sam is a mystery in herself. She seems to be two people: a rather slow, poorly educated, uncertain person and another woman, much brighter and more articulate, whom she also refers to as “Sam”. Unpicking this conundrum would give too much away, but it is central to the novel, echoes the Brontë-like sibling relationships in Knox’s earliest fiction and calls, on occasion, for some concentration from the reader.

The other major figure in the story, glimpsed very early on, is the “man in black” – his skin, eyes and clothes are all dark. This is no Johnny Cash guitar-toter, but an alien being, eventually named and identified as Myr. He is the quintessential outsider, the unknown, the other.

As the survivors try to make sense of the incomprehensible, to fashion a kind of existence for themselves and to bury the dead, it becomes increasingly clear that the madness, or something like it, has occurred before, and that not everyone in the group is who or what they seem. Knox is very good on the juxtaposition of the necessary ordinariness of day-to-day survival – food, healthcare (there is sickness and more death as the novel progresses), some kind of civil and moral agreement to co-exist rather than combust – with the encompassing weirdness and terror of their predicament. How do people function in such a situation? What would you or I do? What would we sacrifice and for whom?

Readers of a squeamish disposition may be disconcerted by the first part of Wake, and some later descriptions, such as the death of a parachutist who attempts to reach the survivors. Knox is unsparingly forensic in reporting the ingenious and appalling ways in which people perish during the madness: a couple apparently kissing passionately, but in fact consuming each others’ faces; a man doubled over a deep fryer with his head and arms deep in boiling fat; a postman pushing himself through the slit of a letterbox. Most chilling, perhaps, is the eventual discovery of small decomposing bodies in the cupboards of an otherwise empty daycare centre: “The children had been tidied away, like their toys.” Yet, strangely, none of this is gratuitous. There is a peculiar integrity about these descriptions. Knox maintains an iron grip on her material, a clear view of how she wants this book to affect its readers, an uncompromising certainty concerning what she wants to say about the human spirit in extremis.

Knox is a fine writer. Apart from anything else, she is a first-class narrator, efficiently moving us through the story, making us want to turn every page, always holding our sometimes horrified attention: this is a very difficult book to put down. She is superb at precise and striking physical description: “There was a film of smoke at the ceiling, and the fluorescent lights were wrapped in its pale grey gauze”; a helicopter disappears “inside a bloom of bright, black-edged fire”; “quivering scrums” of abandoned cats fight to be fed.

As moviemakers have always known, human beings are fascinated by the actions of other human beings in a finite, threatened or bizarre situation. Knox creates a generally very credible range of personalities under stress, although some emerge more strongly than others. William is particularly well drawn – highly intelligent, arrogant, manipulative and, yet, honourable. He can be patronising and irritating, and his behaviour is questionable, but, as is so often the case, the baddie tends to steal the show. Among the less confrontational characters, the portrait of the teenage Oscar has real tenderness and insight.

There are some minor cavils. The theory that a situation like the madness has occurred before and is represented in local Maori cave drawings feels rather forced and a trifle researched. There are also a couple of plot summaries throughout the book which, although useful in clarifying matters for the reader, have an imposed quality. From an ease of reading point of view, too, it would have been better not to have a William and a Warren, and a Lily and a Lucy.

Of more moment is the fantasy element, for want of a better phrase. It will depend, of course, on the reader’s alien tolerance level – how well did you cope with the angel Xas in The Vintner’s Luck? – but, for me, the scenes with Myr lessened the tension in the novel. I was slightly disappointed to be wrested away from the human focus, sufficiently intriguing in itself, and made to confront a being surrounded by a “slick skin of insistent impenetrable air”. Would it have been better, more interesting, if he hadn’t been personified? The mystery of what has happened in Kahukura does, of course, have to be resolved – or does it? – but the interactions between the characters, and the complexities surrounding Sam, which require their own suspension of disbelief, are perhaps the most satisfying, effective and adult part of the book.

And yet, for Knox, “real” and “unreal” are fluid concepts, or maybe all one concept. Her unapologetic refusal to deny a barrier between the expected/seen and the unexpected/unseen can be challenging, but it can also jolt the reader into surprised admiration. The completeness and originality of Knox’s vision, her fierce intelligence and powerful imagination, cannot be denied. From the arresting Dylan Horrocks cover to the last few clever words, Wake is a very considerable achievement and one that leaves its own mysterious and lasting imprint on the reader.

 

Anna Rogers is a Christchurch book editor, writer and reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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