Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book Arrives at Last

The Absolute Book arrives in the United States more than a year after its initial publication with New Zealand’s Victoria University Press. Although Elizabeth Knox’s books have always been critically acclaimed, most of her titles have never escaped the Antipodes. Happily for American readers, a rave review by Dan Kois, a Slate critic briefly resident in New Zealand inspired a bidding war for U.S. rights, and now any American can open The Absolute Book. As someone who has been looking forward to it since the Slate review, I’m happy to report that the novel was worth the wait. 

Taryn Cornick’s beloved sister, Bea, was murdered, but her killer spent only a few years behind bars. Although Taryn marries a kind man who is also a rich man, although she has friends, although she’s healthy, she has not yet recovered from Bea’s brutal death. During a trip to a hunting lodge with her husband, Taryn meets a quiet outdoorsman and shares all her secrets and anger with him. They don’t become lovers, but the hunter makes a tacit offer to Taryn: He will kill Bea’s killer upon his parole. Taryn doesn’t quite say yes, but she fails to say no. Her sister’s killer meets a suspiciously wretched end, the police can prove nothing, and Taryn tries to forget her sin of omission. She even tries to forget the hunter’s name: When she thinks of him at all, she thinks of him as “The Muleskinner.”

Several years after her encounter with The Muleskinner, Taryn Cornick is not a happy woman, but she’s becoming a successful one. She’s divorced her husband, completed a Ph.D., and has just published The Feverish Library, a nonfiction account of the written word and the dangers it faces. Her new success, however, sends policeman Jacob Berger, still suspicious about Taryn’s crime, back into her life. But the dogged policeman is the least of her worries: Taryn’s grandfather once held a mysterious box in his now-dispersed family library. A single footnote in Taryn’s book attracts supernatural attention. Soon, Taryn and Jacob are facing demons, crossing gates between worlds, and exploring the fairy world of the sidhe with the help of the mysterious and aptly named shapechanger Shift, who is part-human, part-fairy, and perhaps part-god. Taryn, Jacob, and Shift will all risk their lives and their souls; their successes and failures may shape the future of several worlds.

We’re never treated to an excerpt from The Feverish Library, so readers cannot judge Taryn Cornick’s prose. Her creator’s writing, however, is accomplished. Here, she sketches the unsettling Jacob Berger, ambivalent, passive, and conceited, but not caricatured:

Jacob was always able to imagine worse. His gifts were as limited as almost everyone else’s. His strongest distinguishing trait was his lifelong restless disdain. He didn’t have a calling, only a skillset. He was clever, and cool-headed, and prepared to do tough things so long as  someone he trusted offered him a good enough reason. 

The prose of The Absolute Book is solid and direct, neither succumbing to flashiness nor aspiring to poetry. It keeps us grounded in Knox’s human concerns even as the narrative races us past the descending angels and the rising demons, through the roots of Yggdrasil and under the stars of another sky.

It takes five hundred pages for the words “the absolute book” to appear, and it’s easy to imagine that Knox intends “absolute” in its sense of “all-encompassing,” because it seems as if she’s trying to squeeze every genre of fiction between two covers. At various points, The Absolute Book resembles a book about books, a psychological crime novel, a romance, a portal fantasy, a technothriller, a historical fantasy, and an allegory. A lengthy mid-book section in which Taryn and Jacob, alone, exposed, and chained, must escape drowning in a primitive trap brought to mind the fanatically detailed nature-set thrillers of Geoffrey Household, Knox’s listless and dreary Purgatory evokes the Land of the Dead in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, and Odin’s modern-dress appearance at a writers’ festival suggests Neil Gaiman. 

This surfeit of stories, this melding of modes and mixing of genres, is The Absolute Book’s greatest strength, but also the source of its occasional frustrations. There’s so much to observe and to consider and to enjoy, yet Knox lets vital characters languish offstage for hundreds of pages and, more importantly, abandons intriguing themes. Take the matter of damnation. The sidhe traffic in souls; their land’s peace with Hell is maintained by vast human sacrifices that occur every two hundred years. Demons take the murdered victims’ souls home with them. Taryn is an atheist until she encounters other worlds and traffics with gods and demons. Not only do souls exist, she discovers, even innocents’ souls can be stolen and sent to Hell. She’s seized by disgust for the sidhe, but never does reflect on the cosmic horror that the very possibility of such a bargain should inspire. Similarly, obtaining irrefutable proof that gods are real and multiple, and that their characters change according to their worshippers, could, I think, be a more shattering experience than it is presented as here. A few pages on such matters would have done good; this is the rare long novel that might be better longer. Elsewhere, Knox’s concision refreshes, though “concision” is relative in such a long book. A late-in-book revelation about Shift’s past career won’t surprise anyone who knows British myth, but the glancing, off-hand way it is confirmed makes it all the more satisfying. 

The Absolute Book is unwieldy and untidy; like the mercurial Shift, it forever changes form and refuses to be pinned down. It’s flawed and exuberant and generous and original; the readers of this book may have some reservations, but they will have few regrets. Since libraries figure so prominently in this novel, so I’ll conclude by saying that reading The Absolute Book has sent me off to the local public library. I’ve already placed a hold on one of Knox’s earlier titles, and I can’t wait to explore. 

The Absolute Book is available from Viking.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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