Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Bad O’Phelan is a New Zealand caver traumatised by the memory of Dart Ridge, a Cave Creek disaster, which he survived “taking three backward steps off the viewing platform above the glacier … his body having made its own estimation of the platform’s soggy give”. Retrieving a body in the surf off the coast of the south of France, he is reminded of a caving accident when he saw a young woman drowned. Daniel Octave is a Jesuit priest, whose childhood was consumed by the care of his unstable mother. He is involved with the canonisation “Process” of the Blessed Martine Raimondi, a French nun who guided a doomed group of hostages and resistance fighters through a cave system and was subsequently executed by the Nazis. The body in the surf is Martine Dardo who, Daniel feels, may be her daughter. One of the miracles Daniel investigates concerns the young boy Jacques Palomba, lost in a flooded cave but saved when he prays to Martine. Eve, the widow of the Picasso-like painter Jean Ares, has lost her sister Dawn in an inexplicable road accident. Her face, or Ares’ painting of her face, is of special significance to Bad. Daniel writes the “Process”. The art historian Tom Hilxen writes the biography of Ares. Eve writes an account of the 18th century writer the Marquis Guy de Chambord, and translates from
Provençal his work Lumière de Jour, or Daylight.
What really happened in the caves beneath the church? How was the Blessed Martine able to find her way through the blackness of the cave system? Is her career as a member of the resistance consistent with Christian principles? What did she mean when she said of the saved resistance members that “their lives had come at a price”? What happened to the caver Bad encountered in the cave Le Lien Vert? Why is her hair the same strange colour as that of the woman in the surf? Who is Louis Ila? What is his relationship with the Marquis? Whose body is in the sarcophagus in Santa Maria della Fiori? All these stories are entwined, all these questions are answered by reference to other puzzles. This is a narrative full of ghosts, doubles, twins, family members, fledglings and nestlings, an elaborate game with what Knox calls “the problem of appearances”, “a code that lacks its key”. Bad gradually realises, as the various narratives conjoin, that “If that story was a song, it would be a round.” Daylight has a complexity that doesn’t seem to need the added twist that a number of the central characters are vampires.
Daylight is the most ambitious and the most successfully realised New Zealand novel of the last 20 years. Its breathtaking scope makes one realise how narrow the parameters of local writing have become. This is not to disparage the practitioners whose manipulation of, and play within, the standard range is often masterly. But one realises how often one encounters not just the same grimly adhered to realism, the same unbroken line of influence, the seemingly Stalinist strictures on nationalism, but even the same narratives – the child looking at the adult world, the vengeance of a repressive society on the outsider, the comedy of manners, the relationship between the individual and the landscape. How often is a book award given to a novel of ideas rather than a novel of sensitively delineated emotions? Not often.
Knox extends the possibilities of the novel form not simply in terms of its subject matter but of its intellectual scope. Daylight is a novel of the grown-up world, heavy with the freight of history, custom and culture, alive to the literary possibilities of all these. The reader is drawn into Knox’s world, as Louis Ila is seduced by the sinister marquis into giving him what he wants, “for time here, for the freedom of the house, for the white on the edge of each rose petal, for knowledge of how.” However detailed its plot, however disquietingly bizarre the introduction of vampires, Daylight is sustained by an intellectual framework of philosophy, aesthetics, morality and religion. On the one hand, there is the real world: “Ventimiglia was sober and grubby. Its mist smelled of soap powder, of laundry on lines high over head.” This world contains obsession, exhumation, a cave-diving death, an 18th century apprentice’s life, a meal of olives and bread, a painting of empty clothes and unowned tools. It also contains ways to shape this randomness – a rabbit sniffing an arrow as an image of God’s grace and man’s obliviousness of it.
About the vampires. It seems to me that, while The Vintner’s Luck was phenomenally successful, there was a section of the reading public terminally resistant to reading a book with an angel as a main character. Daylight may suffer from the same reaction. In both cases, resistant reader, you miss the point. The point about Xas in The Vintner’s Luck is his reality, the absolute seriousness with which Knox treats him, and the way that she allows for and overcomes her readers’ resistance by taking them through the resistance of her non-angelic characters. Of course it is ridiculous that a 19th century vintner should meet an angel – all the more reason to chronicle it.
Daylight has the same uncompromising stance vis à vis its material. Its vampires are not metaphorical. The physical proof is there and incontrovertible – the cannula and tube, the spiney-mouthed kiss, the blood. Bad knows Dawn is a vampire because she bites him. We know with similar certainty. Knox keeps right away from any playful postmodern games with her material. Despite publishers’ puffs and overseas reviews, Knox is neither Anne Rice nor Jane Austen. She is a fabulist not a satirist, a religious writer, not one who uses the trappings of religion as gothic effect or kitsch decoration. And for someone who works with such a fantastic range of material she is a realist. Science fiction, with its insistence on the reality of the imaginary, is the genre that best describes her recent work. The point about her vampires is not that she finds it amusing or destabilising to put them in a contemporary novel. The point about her vampires is that they are potentially evil. As Eve translates their text, Lumière de Jour, she realises it is a work which is “interested in being alive, not with being human; in consciousness, not moral agency.”
While Knox began her writing career with a gesture towards the supernatural in After Z-Hour (1987), the three novellas that consolidated her reputation, Paramata (1989), Pomare (1994) and Tawa (1998), were recognisably local, dealing with children’s perception of the adult world, while Glamour and the Sea (1996) examined the adult effects of childish trauma. The unexpected leap of the imagination and of literary nerve which produced The Vintner’s Luck (1998) is now a legend of New Zealand writing – the author’s illness, the dream of the angel, the translation of that image into a narrative of viticulture and theology in 19th century France. Knox pursued the same world of romance, though rather more bound by human than ethereal concerns, in her 2002 novel Billie’s Kiss. Only Black Oxen (2001) seems to have faltered with the critical public, the strength of the author’s imaginative power making few concessions to the reader. It is perhaps significant that one of the enthusiastic reviews of Black Oxen was by the British novelist A S Byatt, who compared Knox to 19th century practitioners. Byatt makes similar demands on both her form and her readership as Knox, at times entrancing – as in the sequence beginning with The Virgin in the Garden (1978) – at times completely solipsistic, as in The Biographer’s Tale (2002).
How local is a work such as Daylight? It seems to me that, far from being, as Patrick Evans has argued, a sign of “the removal or neutralising of the New Zealand referent from fiction written by New Zealanders” (Kite 22, New Zealand Listener 16 August, 2003, and Mark Williams’ response in his review of Chemistry, New Zealand Books October 2002), Knox’s novel is both acutely perceptive about how New Zealanders live in the world now, and suggestive of ways in which this perception could be extended. Bad O’Phelan is the innocent New Zealander, in a direct line of descent from Macaulay’s figure sketching the ruins of some future London, a Jamesian eye of innocence cast across the complexities of the old world. But this is to put Knox’s sense of the relationship between Europe and New Zealand too diagrammatically and oppositionally. There is in Daylight no separation. The landscape of the south of France, of Cave Creek, of the Riwaka Resurgence exist in the same dimension. None is privileged or romanticised. And the south of France setting is not arbitrary or gratuitous decoration. Menton has had literary resonances for New Zealand writers and readers from Mansfield onwards, and could be said to provide for us a conceptual path into European culture, one which bypasses the necessarily deferential or resentful link to the imperial centre, as well as avoiding the increasingly tired binaries of the postcolonial. Daylight’s deployment of the history and literature of a European past marks a culture owned by the antipodean imagination without cringe or postcolonial angst. As one of Daylight’s characters asserts, “matters of the heart cannot be communicated in a language that is strange to the land”.
This novel then is an expression of New Zealand’s sense of itself in the world – not simply in that we travel. We don’t – not all of us, although we know the world imaginatively nonetheless. That is what reading is for. Our conception of place is increasingly that of global space and conceptual space, related to but not bound by physical markers, and given coherence by ideas. Thus the complexity of Daylight’s narrative is less significant than its eventually realised pattern of significance. The two – narrative space and intellectual framework – are simultaneously present. At the point at which Bad understands intellectually what is and has happened, he experiences it, and Knox describes it, sensually and visually:
The cave’s system lay open to him now, an animated cross section, full of figures and lights. There were cavers in the Salle de la Nef, shawled in sleeping bags, waiting for the water to recede. Dawn and Jacques Palomba were lying in a cosy cavern, full of paintings and candles. The rescue teams pushed their threads of light through dark tunnels, Gino with them, his face warm behind his cold lamp. The Pilgrim’s Way was visible for all its length, vined with cable – speakers, monitors like fruit on those vines – crowded with pilgrims, the bishop at their head, in his purple and gold. Bad had found a different mountain path, too. A path that wasn’t the work of the alpine guides, the Parks and Reserves, or the Department of Conservation and that didn’t have a viewing platform above a glacier. It was a mule track, part of a network of tracks around the nexus of the Salt Route, the pass into Piedmont. Bad was standing on that path, watching a vampire, who was watching a soldier, who was watching a snake and watched by a butcher with a billhook. There was blood on the glacier still – but there was blood everywhere.
Here, Bad’s perspective incorporates all the characters of the novel, all its events past and present, all its locations. The glacier referred to is not European; it is the glacier of Dart Ridge or Cave Creek. The blood is the object of vampire desire, and it is also the mark of collective tragedy, of resistance fighters executed by the Nazis, of young New Zealanders killed by random tragedy. Daylight suggests we ought to consider these things both because we are New Zealanders, and because we are human. As Elizabeth Knox’s former teacher Bill Manhire puts it in “Milky Way Bar”:
I live at the edge of the universe,
like everybody else. Sometimes I think
congratulations are in order.
Jane Stafford is currently working with Mark Williams on a study of late 19th century colonial New Zealand literature.