The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
"I think he gets everything from novels," Taryn explained to Berger.Berger was exasperated. "Everyone gets everything from novels."
New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox is a literary nomad. In a career that has spanned thirty years and nearly twenty novels, she has written historical romance (The Vintner's Luck, 1998), YA fantasy (Mortal Fire, 2013; The Dreamhunter Duet, 2005 & 2007), and Stephen King-esque horror (Wake, 2013). Her most recent novel, The Absolute Book, is at once a leveling up and an inevitable culmination of this wandering quality in Knox's career. It is, as its title suggests, a novel about books and their magic. But it is also a novel about stories and how they shape the world. The result has a bit of a magpie quality to it, dipping into different genres and story types, mixing various references and homages, often losing the thread of its story in cul-de-sacs and set-pieces that are more interesting than the whole that contains them. And by its end there is quite a lot to argue with. But for lovers of Knox's writing, as well as anyone interested in fantasy that is about fantasy, it is a rewarding read.
When The Absolute Book's heroine Taryn Cornick is nineteen, her beloved older sister Beatrice is killed in a brutal, senseless attack. Beatrice's death—and its subsequent investigation and trial, which expose Taryn at a too-young age to the mundane, pathetic cruelty with which some men regard women as objects for their own gratification—leave Taryn emotionally shattered and hollowed-out. She drops out of school, alienates her friends, marries a rich man whom she doesn't love, and lets him carry her around the world on luxurious business trips and vacations. On one of these trips, a hunting expedition in the Canadian Rockies, Taryn catches the eye of a taciturn hunting guide referred to only as "The Muleskinner". She tells him her story, including the fact that Beatrice's killer is due to be released from prison. A few months later, the Muleskinner shows up at Taryn's home and lets it be known that he is willing to do her a service. When Beatrice's killer is found dead soon after, the police are happy to write it off as a random attack, except for a young detective, Jacob Berger, who believes that Taryn had something to do with it.
Seven years later, Taryn is divorced, and the author of a book about the life and death of libraries, a topic she was introduced to at a young age by her antiquarian grandfather, who kept a renowned and carefully-curated library at his county home of Princes Gate, near the Welsh border. When Taryn begins experiencing seizures and periods of lost time, she is forced to observe herself questioning her family about certain items in that library, specifically a scroll box known as The Firestarter, reputed to have survived multiple library fires unscathed. Recovering in hospital, Taryn re-encounters Jacob, who is now working in conjunction with MI5, who think Taryn's experiences and the search for the Firestarter are connected to terrorism. A pair of Pakistani men who had approached Taryn at a reading asking about the Firestarter, and who also visited Princes Gate (now sold off to a tech company), have been found dead, having apparently committed a gruesome and physiologically implausible murder-suicide.
Taryn and Jacob's separate investigations merge when they encounter a mysterious young man named Shift, who pulls them out of our world and into another, a bucolic setting in which vast stretches of natural beauty are dotted with rustic settlements peopled by inhumanly beautiful, perennially young inhabitants. It doesn't take being warned not to accept food or drink from these people for us to guess where the novel has taken our heroes. Shift confirms what Taryn has already begun to suspect—that her contract with the Muleskinner has placed her soul in the sort of jeopardy that leaves her open to demonic possession, and that demons have been using her, and other humans, to search for the Firestarter. Shift's interest is tied up in fairyland's—here known as The Sidh—ancient compact with hell, the Tithe described in certain bits of Scottish folklore in which the fairies hand over human souls to make up for their own soullessness. The fact that demons are now possessing humans and seeking out the Firestarter suggests to Shift and the other high-ranking fairies (here called sidhe) that they are looking for ways to alter the terms of the compact—and that the fairies, in turn, may be able to use the Firestarter to get out of what is, even to them, a painful necessity.
All of this may seem like a very familiar sort of fantasy thriller. The specifics—demonic possession, library fires—and the McGuffin—the Firestarter—may be different, but the general shape of the story is quite familiar. By the time Taryn remembers that one of her grandfather's assistants once, while behaving very strangely, tried to burn the Princes Gate library down in search of the Firestarter, most readers will be keyed up for a certain type of story. When Jacob ends up more on Taryn's side than his MI5 masters', helping her to evade the demons on her tail and to find the Firestarter before they do, we may think we know exactly how the story to come will play out. (The fact that Knox has an expert control of her story, carrying us smoothly and unobtrusively across chapters that range over years and continents, never letting us lose our grip on the thread of the story, also creates the impression of a certain type of competent, plotty but unostentatious book.)
What's interesting is that it's also familiar to the characters. Beatrice, for example, was an avid reader of supernatural and conspiracy thrillers of the Da Vinci Code variety, ones in which the heroes fall through a crack in the world and discover a secret truth hidden beneath the surface of everything they've always known. Even some of the supernatural figures our heroes meet seem to possess genre-savvy because of their reading—Shift, for example, has a copy of Kate Moses's Labyrinth on his bedside table.
Shift said, "A pact with the world that isn't part of the accepted historical record, but a steady referent, like a faraway star. The boat moves and the star stays still. Time passes, generations rise and fall, but even with the changes something stays the same—truth, and the conspiracy that keeps the truth hidden."Taryn said, "People love the idea that there are things which matter which last and last, and outlast banks, businesses and governments. Of course we wish the world was like that.""The world might be like that," Shift said.
Nor is this the only place where The Absolute Book blends fantasy as a mode and fantasy as a commercial genre. Taryn's father is an actor who became famous for his role in a trilogy of fantasy movies shot in New Zealand (directed by a "Peter", no last name). Later in the book, he's brought in for what he thinks is a screen test, in which he's to play Odin. As Taryn and the readers quickly realize, the demons with whom "Odin" is running his lines are entirely real, and the whole thing has been set up by fairies who are trying to figure out what these demons want with the Firestarter.
Even these metafictional games, however, are not really what The Absolute Book is about. By the time the conspiracy thriller has been well-established, an attentive reader might observe that it has been moving too fast. We are barely a hundred pages into a six-hundred-page novel, and yet the story we think we've been reading is well into its second act. It's around this time that Taryn and Jacob are pulled into the Sidh, and at around this point that it becomes clear that they are no longer really our heroes. Instead, they are now the point of view characters onto the larger, more involved drama of Shift, a half-human, half-demon, backwards-aging demigod who is linked to the Firestarter in ways that the novel takes a long time to puzzle out. Taryn, for example, is shocked to realize that souls, heaven, and hell are real, and that by engaging the Muleskinner to kill Beatrice's murderer, she has damned herself. But though she spends the rest of the novel wrestling with this understanding and coming to terms with it, it—and her story in general—are no longer really the point.
What starts out as The Da Vinci Code instead ends up as more of a cross between American Gods and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (with a bit of Station Eleven thrown in at the end). And, like the first of those novels, a bit baggy and scattershot. Once the conspiracy angle is allowed to fade (the danger of demonic possession, for example, ceases to be something the characters worry about, with only a bit of handwaving as to why it's no longer a practical concern), The Absolute Book becomes the story of how Taryn and Jacob puzzle out Shift's history, how they become folded into his story, and how they are fundamentally changed by that.
There are some excellent set-pieces along the way—the tale of how Shift met one of his oldest retainers in the marshlands of post-Roman England, and together survived a horrific forest fire; the Muleskinner's return, and the cruel death he designs for Taryn and Jacob, which they must scramble to escape; the story of Shift seeking out Odin and his ravens and asking them for the wisdom to change the world, inadvertently locking himself into a strange curse; a hallucinatory visit to purgatory in search of the soul of the last person to dispose of the Firestarter, where Taryn and Shift encounter spirits desperately riding the rails of a train to nowhere, constantly in search of something they can't even articulate. And Knox seeds the whole thing with references that many readers will delight in identifying: to Arthuriana, to fairy folklore, to Norse mythology, to H.P. Lovecraft. Even Knox's own writing feels like a referent—the cosmology the novel comes up with for heaven, hell, and purgatory feels very much of a piece with the one she established in The Vintner's Luck, complete with an emphasis on the rebellion against heaven by Lucifer and his allies.
The problem is that Knox seems to find Shift—who is alternately puzzling, imperious, indifferent, cruel, and needy—not only fascinating, but irresistibly attractive, and apparently expects us to feel the same, to fall in love with him as Taryn and Jacob both do. (In, it should be noted, very different ways. One of the things that distinguishes The Absolute Book from standard conspiracy thrillers is that Taryn and Jacob are not each other's designated love interested; Jacob ends up more interested in Shift, while Taryn doesn't have a love interest at all, and instead spends the novel finally working through her grief for Beatrice, and filling the void left behind by her death with friendship and a renewed sense of civic responsibility.) This, once again, feels like an expansion of ideas established in The Vintner's Luck, and specifically the irresistible attractiveness of its tortured, mysterious fallen angel protagonist, Xas. But what worked in a relatively small-scale romance is harder to swallow in a novel as wide-ranging as The Absolute Book, which keeps returning to the fallen state of the world, as in a scene in which Taryn meets humans who have been living in fairyland for centuries:
They sang a bit, and then tried to get Taryn to tell them, in her poor French, how the world fared. Was it possible yet to be poor and live decently? Were young men still sent to die in wars made by old men? Were the meek still waiting to inherit the Earth, as scripture promised, through generations of them were already under the ground, and a grave isn't an inheritance?Not really, Taryn said of the first. Yes, of course, of the second. And of the third, no. It's not like that.
For a novel about secret truths, hidden worlds, and the impermanence of human existence, in fact, The Absolute Book is surprisingly interested in the details of our current mess. One of Taryn's friends calls her in tears because her Polish husband has been denied residency in Britain. Taryn, as part of her book tour, rails against the policy of shutting down libraries as a modern form of book-burning. Even in the face of demonic possession and the provable existence of hell, the evil the novel sets itself against is modernity and the rapacious quest for profit. One of Odin's ravens muses that "Money is truly horrible", and Jacob, waking up in a hospital to news of an enormous building fire, is informed by his nurse that those responsible are "Not terrorists. Tories." Set against this rampant destruction of anything not deemed immediately useful and profitable, Taryn finds herself deeply attracted to the Sidh's permanence.
But what had taken the place of the pressures wasn't Taryn's own tranquility; it was the land itself, the Sidh, promising always to be there, always to be the same. Promising also that it would be the same Taryn who stepped out with sound knees and clear eyes from this blue lake, or stone hearth, or apple shade. Come again, be again—that was its promise, a sense of permanence Taryn hadn't felt since she was under ten years old
And yet even the sidhe turn out to have been seduced by the logic of capitalism, of industrialization, of economies of scale. The men who question Taryn about the state of the world are soldiers rescued from the charnel fields of WWI. And, as she knows and they don't, they are destined for the Tithe. It's here that Knox puts her most distinctive mark on the familiar material she's been working with, imagining the Tithe as something comparable to factory farming or chattel slavery:
But it seemed that those stories of the selective theft of humans by fairy only used to be true. The sidhe weren't cold-hearted seducers and accidental saviors; they were dealing in souls by bulk. They were snatching chained men and women from the holds of sinking slave ships, and soldiers from the putrid mud of trenches at the end of the Voie Sacrée, the road that carried a generation of young men to their deaths at Verdun. The sidhe saved those people, body and soul, fattened them on happiness for two hundred years, then sent them way to Hell. The Tithe wasn't a home kill; it was an abattoir.
Later on, it's also revealed that that the sidhe themselves are colonizers, who threw out the native, demon inhabitants of their world and remade it to their own liking. These demons were later "twice-conquered" by the angels fallen from heaven after Lucifer's revolt. Now they're searching for the Firestarter because they believe it will give them the power to overthrow their oppressors and liberate their homeland.
What's it all about, in the end? One might have expected The Absolute Book to side with this revolutionary project, however questionable the figures at its center. One might even have expected it to carry the connection it draws between the sidhe and real-world colonizers and exploiters to its obvious conclusion. But it's here that Knox's priors—not only her obvious attraction to the pastoral, but her love of Shift, who comes to stand for the Sidh and its enticing permanence—poke through her worldbuilding. The entire novel ends up working towards his empowerment, as we learn first who he is and what his connection to demons, angels, and humans is, and second what the Firestarter is and how he can draw upon its power. The justification for this is that, for all of his long life, Shift has been searching for ways to make the world—all of the worlds—more just and benevolent (if you twigged to the terms "backwards-aging" and "Arthuriana" earlier in this review, you may realize what form one of those attempts took). But this is not entirely convincing. Knox has been working so hard to get us to fall in love with Shift that it's hard to trust her claim that he is the savior the world needs—the two things are, after all, not the same.
One key difference between the type of conspiracy thrillers that The Absolute Book initially presents itself as, and the broader, deeper kind of fantasy novel it ends up being, is a willingness to change their world. The Absolute Book ends with a fundamental transformation, a breakdown of boundaries and established orders—the overthrow of the fallen angels in hell, and of failing governments on Earth, dismantling much of the latter's industrial, wealth-generating systems. It's a bold move—and one that Knox is even able to argue for in part, for example when she has Taryn point out that most people on earth were always powerless to direct their lives, always at the mercy of people so powerful and removed from them that they might as well be a separate species. So being colonized by immortal fairies isn't really that much of a change, except that now the air and water are cleaner, and the temperatures are finally dropping.
What might have been an intriguing suggestion in the body of the novel, however, leaves a bit of a sour taste when dropped in an epilogue—as if we're supposed to take the characters' word for it that this is a happy ending, with no room for argument. Nobody who has read Dr. Sarah Taber can encounter the suggestion that everyone might be better off if we went back to subsistence farming without their eyelid starting to twitch uncontrollably. And the laser-like focus on Taryn, Jacob, and other privileged humans in the book's final pages prevents such uncomfortable questions as what a return to rural living will do to the fortunes of queer people or the disabled.
And yet, at the same time, a refusal to be be narrowed down into a straightforward argument is part of The Absolute Book's charms. The book I've found myself comparing it to more than any other since finishing it is John Crowley's Little, Big. Not that the two books are very similar stylistically—Knox's style is clean and even occasionally sharp, against Crowley's dreamy current of words. But like Little, Big, The Absolute Book is, as the critic John Clute put it, a novel about "the unthinning of the world", and like it, it is so much bigger and messier than that description implies. Knox, unlike Crowley or Susannah Clarke in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, sets her novel in a world that is palpably ours, that has our immediate problems. Which makes her unthinning easier to place in context, and thus easier to argue with.
It's a bold project even if you find yourself arguing with it, one that ends up suiting the novel's gargantuan title. The Absolute Book is a novel that tries to encompass everything. We shouldn't be surprised that it fails at that, and should, instead, applaud what it does accomplish in the attempt. The most important thing it ends up saying comes around its midpoint, and the rest of the novel seems like a demonstration of how difficult it is to work this principle into deeds—in life as well as in fiction.
"Can't it also be said that, in a way, books have souls? Here, many of us believe our waterways do. Rivers have mauri: life force. Wairua: spirit.""I think we should act as if we have souls," Taryn said. "Immortal souls we might imperil by cruelty or bad faith or a serious lack of charity. And if imagining that books have souls helps us believe we do, then books absolutely have souls."