A reader tease, Paola Bilbrough

Elizabeth Knox,
Victoria University Press, 1992, $24.95

‘I have come that you might have life and have it in fullness’ is a biblical quotation repeated twice in Elizabeth Knox’s latest creation, Treasure. It relates most obviously to the sheer magnitude of the novel. The disparate settings of White Steppes, a Northern Carolina Christian settlement and various Wellington locations are interwoven with a vast number of compelling characters. Nor is Treasure confined to one unified story; there are at least four inter-connected stories and possibly more. One must work hard to comprehend all of the intricacies and resonances.

Treasure is concerned with both the racy sensual pulse of life and inure metaphysical dimensions. We learn of Kath’s developing sexuality and her relationship with her thesis supervisor, Martin; the Omo family who are Charismatic Christians; Mayhew Quitman who is a quarter Red Indian and in a sense a bridge between the physical and the spiritual. His healing powers are closely linked with his physical presence and sexuality. Then of course there is the mysterious black heat-draining disk, sent to Kath’s workmate Francis Kirby, who is Textile Conservator at the National Museum. Possibly the disk has some kind of occult property or at the very least is a bizarre scientific phenomenon.

The quantity of characters and locations, plus a fascination with magic/ religion/ the fantastical in Treasure, is suggestive of the novels of Canadian writer, Robertson Davies. However Davies’ novels are often part of trilogies; if the reader is baffled by one, this can be cured by reading the rest. Davies is also extremely meticulous in making links; not even the smallest incident is superfluous. Treasure, on the other hand, although nearly always stimulating, is not always completely fulfilling; there is much in it that baffles or does not link up. What of Peter Oakley for instance? His suicide in the Museum’s Beetle Room provides material for some marvellous detail and imagery, and as curator of medals and coins, his death is convenient: he is not around to help identify the strange black disk. But his very existence in Treasure is frustrating, it touches the edge of a new, unfinished story. And the disk itself remains a complete mystery: a reader tease. This frustration is partially compensated for by Elizabeth Knox’s startling, idiosyncratic use of language: one feels that it is almost possible to read Treasure just for its poetry and finely tuned detail. In Part 1, Kath notices the way a decoration of butterflies is enclosed within the plastic panel of Martin’s kitchen door. Knox observes: ‘Martin had lived in this house for years and no one had ever noticed or shown him this. ‘The position of the reader in relation to Treasure is somewhat similar. Kath’s energy and eye for oddness is akin to the way the novel is written.

Elizabeth Knox’s prose also has a surreal, painterly quality to it; for instance the description of a psychic dream Mayhew has when sick: ‘She took his face between her dry hands and his sweat instantly liquefied the first layer of her skin. Under her touch his face was as slick as a clay slip on a thrown pot. The room was a wheel that turned around them as she put her thumbs into his spinning skull and made a hollow.’

In Part 1 Martin is fascinated by the way Kath gets ‘excited by the velocity of her own talk’. To a certain extent this can be applied to Treasure; the ‘White Steppes’ section which takes up a good third of the novel and skips back 20 years to Mayhew’s childhood seems much more of a creative and imaginative achievement than the sections concerning Wellington. ‘White Steppes’ is rich, beautiful even, yet never overstated. Mayhew’s relationship with his cousin Deane is one of aggression and suppressed attraction. The consummation scene, when it finally occurs, is a shock, but fills a dimension of their relationship previously hinted at. The sexual act is given more power through an absence of over-explicit description. In contrast the reader is treated to all the intimacies of Kath and Martin’s relationship; their lovemaking, infidelity, and subsequent anguish. This certainly has intriguing aspects, but all the emotion and bodily fluids become excessive.

Although I found Treasure uneven, my reservations are largely outweighed by the novel’s strengths. Treasure is strange, wonderful and never dull. Perhaps Elizabeth Knox can be persuaded to write a sequel.


Paola Bilbrough is studying English Literature at Victoria University.


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