Absolutely fabulous, Thom Conroy

The Absolute Book
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776562305

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox is a Ronsardian ode to worldbuilding. Who creates worlds? What connects them? Who controls them? These questions shape the novel’s plot, subject and theme over the 650 pages of Knox’s latest. In a work of this length, the opportunities for spoilers are legion. With that in mind, I’ll need to violate the usual prohibition against them in what follows, although I do pledge not to reveal major surprises from the last 300 pages. This genre-buster tells the story of Taryn Cornick of the Northovers (aka Valravn, Hero of Understanding) and her struggle to overcome demoniac possession and assist a demigod known as Shift (aka Little god of the marshlands, fate foresworn princeling) in recrafting realms of being while struggling to redeem her own imperiled soul.

Like an immersive role-playing game, The Absolute Book compels its readers to succumb to the lush detail of alternative realities, and there’s no question that Knox is at her finest when we settle into the sure-footed prose of her places, as in this description of the Sidhe countryside surrounding Shift’s mud-and-wattle hut:

The rim of the sun had cleared the hidden horizon. The sky above the lake filled with light. Taryn looked up. She had never seen such a clear, lucent blue. The slopes around the wall were rich pasture, and along the rim of the crater heath grew in softer colours, thyme yellow, sage green. There were flowers through all of it, blue, yellow, red and white, pink and purple. It looked by turns intensively cultivated and profoundly wild.

So much of the pleasure of The Absolute Book is bound up in the time we spend among the soulless, but otherwise nearly perfect, Sidhe, as well as in their mesmerising world, The Land of the Pact, a region their ancestors stitched together from the margins of other realities. Enough pleasure, in fact, that I feel compelled to linger.

One of my own favourite moments occurs while Taryn, the mysterious (but unremarkably-named) Shift, his ophidian sister Neve, and sundry human attendants, are navigating the Senisteingh River en route to deliver innocent souls to the horrors of Hell, an unholy hundred-year sacrifice known as The Tithe. The depravity on which the swank real estate of the Sidhe is founded, The Tithe has been in operation across the millennia, a cyphering of souls which allows the “ladies and gentlemen” of the Sidhe to reside in The Land of the Pact as an aristocracy of the chic and permaculturally-astute. The following scene is congenial, seductive, serene, and yet undeniably coloured by the residue of evil. Focusing on the small details, such as the “tree whose trunk was worn smooth by ropes”, allows us to luxuriate in the reality of a tranquil voyage in full awareness of the centennial mass murder awaiting yet another generation of harvested souls:

there were many other places where one of two vessels might moor, like the deep water beside a tree whose trunk was worn smooth by ropes – somewhere boats had tied up for years, boats whose passengers wouldn’t want to join a thronged harbour campsite. Their boat, heading for the customary nightly harbour, often passed barges moored at these quite spots. At dusk, their curtained palanquins floated, dreamy and pale, in their clouds of spice-scented smoke. On their boat a hush would fall. Nobody would hail the barge, and all boat board activities would be suspended until it had passed out of sight.

The human attendants who are sailing towards a possible eternity in Hell wouldn’t be in a social frame of mind, and Knox’s quiet reference to “passengers who wouldn’t want to join a thronged harbour campsite” subtly calls attention to the air of queasy doom that hangs over the otherwise bucolic journey.

In addition to once mastering the lost art of gatemaking, the Sidhe can call on the magic of “glamours”, illusions meant to deceive humans, and “mending”, an adaptation of their saliva that performs all their personal grooming and general atmospheric cleansing without any effort or instruction. Cool, I suppose, but also gross. As soulless and charismatic denizens who depend on the endless slaughter of humans for their existence, the Sidhe are a captivating and profoundly corrupt species whom Knox succeeds in portraying as distinct from humans in spite of ostensible physical resemblance. As befits such a rarified crew, they are also sterile, unable to create complex new life. Accordingly, the places of their world are both perfect and perfectly creepy. This isn’t to say that the text doesn’t invite us to adore and admire its worlds, but rather that our delight in such places calls on a certain appeal to timelessness, Platonic forms, and associated Romantic notions emptied of pesky moral baggage. Alongside Taryn, the Sidhe and their exalted world are the true heroes of the plot: it is the Sidhe and their magic that enables one of the most glorious deus ex machina in all of literature (and I won’t divulge a word more).

One part of Knox’s management of the political implications of her soulless fairyworld comes down to a gentle but affecting irony. Taryn, Shift, and Jacob Berger – a detective whose story becomes bound up with Taryn’s – have enough wit between them to allow a frisky meta-commentary to emerge. At one point, for example, an exasperated Berger observes that “Everyone gets everything from novels.” Later, the conversation that he brands  a “book group discussion” turns to the appeal of concepts which also happen to be central to The Absolute Book: “People love the idea that there are things which matter and last, and outlast banks and businesses and governments”. The remark serves as a metafictional comment on The Absolute Book, but it’s also an honest description of the book’s genuine appeal. The Land of the Pact is a world that plays to our deepest material desires and invites us to muse on the undeniable advantage of a prolonged and charmed existence at the upmarket cost of eternal damnation.

While Knox’s playfulness reminds us that the novel is an alluring entertainment wrapped up in an irresistible mindfuck of moral calculus, there is an unnerving feeling that the “ladies and gentlemen” of the Sidhe are, in fact, a vision of how our betters might actually behave if we fused them from glossy mags and, say, Prince Charles’s executive staff of organic gardeners. What’s more, they can boast of an understated fashion sense and the best room service across the nine realms:

Blanche reappeared with fresh clothes. A long white linen dress and an olive green over-dress with three quarter sleeves, and a row of amber buttons. These garments came with a soft wool wrap, cream with a lemon yellow stripe. With the new clothes where Taryn’s own brown walking boots, cleaned and with new laces. Everything fitted perfectly. There wasn’t a mirror but Taryn knew she looked good.    

There’s no question that The Land of the Pact is paradise but, putting aside the inconvenience of The Tithe, I think it’s fair to say that the Sidhe are snobs. Gorgeous, well-spoken, superpowered near immortals who always smell good – it is, as Raymond Price observes, “all horribly high-handed”. Price is a hired gun, so I know I shouldn’t be taking his side in all this, but point taken. In part, at least, The Absolute Book invites us to indulge the fantasy of accepting the Sidhe (or equivalent overlords) as a force of redemption and ecological salvation. The implication, as far as I can tell, is that if Earth is to be saved, we’ll likely need to turn to some kind of natural aristocracy and, in this novel at least, the royals are enlightened worldbuilders with the regrettable habit of consigning innocents to the butcher’s block. For all their regal manners and exquisite cleanliness, I can’t help but  think I’d decline any help that they were offering humanity. Of course, seeking mortal consent is not a high priority. In their defence, they do avoid eating red meat.

Philosophical grievances aside, I’ll share quibbles. First, I resist Taryn’s ability to decipher epochs-old narrative riddles in flashes of insight that strike me as authorial shortcuts to communicating thorny plot details. Knox does account for Taryn’s ability to piece together mysteries in a crisp paragraph of one-liners. “Maybe sudden insights are your brand of heroism,” Berger suggests. What’s more, Shift christens Taryn his “Hero of Understanding”. So, yes, I noticed the legwork that’s gone into justifying this astonishing character trait, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy it. The Absolute Book is blessed with a trustworthy and semi-omniscient narrator – why not just leave the backstory and narrative mechanics to them?

Finally, on the subject of world-building: I couldn’t shake the feeling that Knox may know a little too much about the magnificent universes she calls to life. I’m fairly sure that I’ve pieced together the intricacies of the novel’s plot, history and byzantine logistics (seems like a reviewer’s duty), but I admit that parsing the details of such things as passage by magical gate – who may travel through which gate when, who may create a gate, who may call a gate – struck me as readerly labour. Magical gates connect the mundane hopelessness of our world with the beguiling wonder of far better places: what’s important is the passage itself; as once we plunge into The Land of the Pact, there’s no turning back. Only one question remains unanswered at the end of what may be one of the most superb resolutions of all time: how long until we get to read the sequel?

Thom Conroy is an author of fiction and teaches creative writing at Massey University.

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