Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book begins with a description of the novel in Beatrice Cornick’s bag on the day she was murdered: a conspiracy thriller of the Da Vinci Code variety, treasured because Beatrice loved to read stories set in museums and libraries. The presence of such a book is a talisman—it describes the genre and action of The Absolute Book itself and, more vitally, gestures to the role of libraries in our cultural imagination. Places of wonder and hidden treasures that can change the world, libraries, museums, and archives are fraught, politicized, and dangerous things. Taryn Cornick, Beatrice’s sister and the novel’s protagonist, knows this better than anyone.
The Absolute Book has been heralded for its genre-defying depths, its twists and turns and satisfying lack of explanations. But what about the other books it contains? What about the volumes upon volumes of history and knowledge that lie hidden between its lines? When it’s not describing battles between demons and fae, or hired assassins, the police, and MI5, this 600-page tome has quite a lot to say about the archive. Whether it says quite enough in those 600 pages is another question.