Touched by an angel, Linda Burgess 

The Vintner’s Luck 
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 342 9

Put up your hand if you don’t know that Elizabeth Knox was delirious with a combination of fever and exhaustion, had a dream that lasted days, and when she came to, wrote it all down. Keep your hand up if you didn’t know that as she wrote, it occurred to her that she had a bestseller on her hands. That she found an agent on the Internet who got her a five-figure (six if you put it in $NZ) advance. That there’s interest from Hollywood. You didn’t know? Where have you been?

So much hype has there been about this book, it seems pointless to summarise the story or, for that matter, break it to you that the central character is an Angel. An aesthetically acceptable Angel, what’s more, no TV3-style goody-goody in a long white frock, this one. Everyone knows too that Elizabeth Knox cocks her snook at those who advise writing about what one knows, and sets her novel in 19th-century Burgundy, not to mention excursions, via the mouthpiece of the Angel Xas, to Heaven and Hell.

Knox takes several risks in this book – most of which appear to pay off. There’s the setting for a start. Given our usual preoccupation with ourselves, it does indeed appear very bold for a New Zealand writer to place a book in such a foreign location as 19th-century France. This is not to say it hasn’t been done before, particularly by those who work in such genres as romantic fiction. But in this case, Knox’s use of setting and background is masterful. Her France is tangible, audible, and lingers on the tongue. Her triumph is that her settings, along with her knowledge of wine, appear utterly convincing. When thorough research is required, there’s always the risk that the information can take over the fiction. This never happens in Vintner’s Luck. Her 19th-century location is never more convincingly realised than in the scene describing a horrendously gruelling anaesthetic-free mastectomy:

Aurora felt she had come to her own execution. She looked around for an avenue of escape. The surgeon stood over her. He had no colour in his face. She didn’t want to watch as he laid out the knives. She was dead already. Brandy backed up her throat. She felt the air on her chest as they uncovered her. Heard them talking and felt them touch her. Then they held her arms and shoulders and began to cut.

The strength of this book is in the writing. Elizabeth Knox writes – dare I say it – like an angel. She creates extraordinarily beautiful prose that flickers and dances on the page. While your eye is very comfortable slipping over it, you would do well to look at it more closely. Her deft, translucent use of alliteration is a joy and this is established at the outset when, in the opening paragraph, the softness of the repeated s’s and f’s turn the prose into poetry. The reader is entranced and entrapped.

A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly bottled wines to baptise the first real sorrow of his life. Though the festival was past, everything was singing, frogs making chamber music in the cistern near the house, and dark grasshoppers among the vines. Sobran stepped out of his path to crush one insect, watched its shiny limbs flicker then finally contract, and sat by its corpse as it stilled. The young man glanced at his shadow on the ground. It was substantial. With the moon just off full and the soil sandy, all shadows were sharp and faithful.

Whatever else this book is about, and it touches on many issues, love is a major theme. The wine-maker Sobran knows many loves in his lifetime. The earthiest of them have the most heavenly names. Célèste, his wife, is perhaps the least successfully realised character. It somehow never seems enough to be told that she is fatally flawed with familial madness – I never felt I knew her. More tangible is the warm, strong presence of Aurora, Sobran’s neighbour, mentor and, finally, his lover. Apparently comfortable in his bi-sexuality, Sobran also loves in the fullest sense his boyhood friend Baptiste, who dies by his side in Siberia during the retreat from the Russians in 1812; and, of course, the angel Xas.

Ironically, the angel Xas is the most fully realised, believable character in the novel. He first appears to young wine-maker Sobran Jodeau one midsummer night in 1808, when the then 18-year-old has staggered drunkenly to the ridge of his father’s land to lament his lack of courage in love. Revisiting him on the same night almost every year thereafter, Xas becomes a constant in Sobran’s life, as a friend, and later, as a lover. The appealingly-named Xas (pronounced Sass) is a delight. Gorgeous in his physical perfection, sassy is indeed what he is. His friendship with Sobran is touchingly described in its mutuality: despite his wise advice on winemaking and love, Xas is not a stereotypical “guardian angel”. It goes part way to explaining his extraordinary attachment to Sobran. He comments to Sobran on the usual effect he has on mortals:

They met me, and thereafter did everything for the glory of God … You were different. You went on being a soldier, a family man, a vintner, as though in your life I was a condiment, a salt that brought out its full flavour, not its central fact.

Although he may well treat Xas as a condiment, Sobran does rely on him for extraterrestrial favours. How could he not when he aches so humanly for news of his dead daughter? When Xas loses his wings, removed by Lucifer in a scene neatly paralleling the mastectomy – and after all, as wings are to angels, so are breasts to women – I felt that we too lose something. For the earthed Xas, working in circuses, assisting in scientific flying experiments, then arriving as tutor to Sobran’s children, loses his passion and his mystery.

Knox knows how seductive the idea of flying is to humankind, and she plays with it throughout the book in delicate recurring motifs relating to flying and wings. Knox is adept at metaphor, many carrying substantial shades of meaning. References to wine flow through the book, both as chapter headings and less literally. She dallies with equivocation, with shadows, with things that only appear to be the same. And God will tolerate only originals. When Xas – designed by God as a prototype for Jesus, only to be abandoned to Hell – is de-winged, left on his skin are two scars like the letter J, one a mirror image of the other. Knox plays incessantly with contrast. Even the idea of flying cannot be separated from falling:

And I want to tell him, that however fine flight was, the arrested fall was most thrilling – to close your wings and go face down into the haze over seas or hills or into a mountain chasm where you can judge the speed of a fall – a blur, then clarity, a full stop in the air, wings open, sky abruptly overhead and gravity grabbing at your body like a hungry flame reaching for fuel just out of its reach … despair is gravity. What an appetite it has, hotter than hellfire. “Here, let me have you,” it says.

Considering Vintner’s Luck engaged me so completely from the outset, why was it, with 30 or so pages to go, I was not driven by any urgency to finish it? I think it was because the pleasure – and it was substantial – was in the prose. The constraints of the novel’s structure finally strangled it. The “solving” of the murder mystery set in place in the early chapters felt almost gratuitous, a cheap trick, as if put there to give a point to a side of Sobran’s life that the novel hadn’t quite developed. As the end drew near, I’d been with the characters for a long time, and rather than care more about them, I cared less. I’d spent a lifetime with Sobran and was happy to say goodbye. As for Xas – well, as the epilogue points out, even wingless he’s immortal.

This is not to undervalue, however, Knox’s considerable intellectual and imaginative achievement. This is an important book in New Zealand fiction and may well be responsible for an onset of cultural cringe among New Zealand authors who, after reading Vintner’s Luck, could feel that the New Zealand we know and live in now, is simply too banal, too insignificant, too ordinary, to write about.

Linda Burgess is a Palmerston North writer.

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