Michael Joseph, £14.99
Review by Fiona Rintoul
Books are so oversold these days that it is difficult not to see “mesmerising” on a cover and think, “mediocre”, not to learn that this is the one book you should read this year and resolve to pass. A blizzard of hard-to-live-up-to superlatives along the “luminous” and “tour de force” lines heralded the publication of The Absolute Book by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox, and so it was with trepidation that I opened its pages.
Therein lies a complex tale that veers between real-life concerns and the world of the Sidhe, Celtic fairy people re-envisioned by Knox. Replete with gods both Christian and pagan, “Taken” people, visits to Hell’s Gate, talking ravens and plenty more besides, The Absolute Book certainly has its moments – the Sidhe and their world are richly imagined.
This is, in many ways, a book about books themselves and their power. Each section begins with a literary quotation, and the text is sprinkled with references to works as various as The Da Vinci Code and The Mabinogion. The protagonist, Taryn Cornick, is a writer whose book about threats to libraries from infernos and economic austerity becomes an unexpected bestseller. Taryn tumbles into the world of the Sidhe through a library door, and their world is linked to this one by the mystery that surrounds a scroll box named the Firestarter.
This bookish focus allows Knox to make a lot of doubtless valid points about the destruction and preservation of books and the ideas they contain. “It’s always better to keep books,” Taryn tells the audience at a literary event in Auckland. “In the same way that it’s better not to pollute waterways and cover arable land with asphalt.”
This wider political posturing can sound preachy. Of Brexit, a “very erudite lawyer” tells DI Jacob Berger, a policeman on Taryn’s trail, “It’s an almost mythical yearning”, having apparently been shoehorned into the narrative to deliver this message. Elsewhere, however, Knox hits the mark. Looking back on past triumphs, Taryn sums up the social-media age when she asks: “Why is happiness so self-congratulatory?”
Berger represents another strand to the intricate plot. The book opens with the murder of Taryn’s sister and Taryn’s subsequent decision to allow “the Muleskinner” to murder the murderer. This revenge killing is the root of both Berger’s and the Sidhe’s interest in Taryn – but not the sum of her troubles. MI5 is on her case too, because of a perceived connection to dodgy server farms in Pakistan.
Crikey, it’s dense. Taryn also has family links to the Firestarter. Despite this, we are fully 400 pages in before she asks the obvious question: “What the bloody hell is in the box?”
This is one of several plot problems. Another is that everybody’s phone is bugged, but Berger and Taryn nonetheless persist in making important, secret arrangements by phone. Then there is the saltwater crocodile that saves the day in Norfolk. Even allowing for the intervention of Valravn and fairy folk wearing bejewelled toe-rings, this is hard to swallow.
Neither does Norfolk, with its dispiriting flatness, ever really come off the page, partly because Knox deploys Americanisms seldom heard in that county: emergency room instead of A&E; realtor instead of estate agent. The characters are similarly nebulous. It’s hard to visualise Taryn or Berger or to understand what motivates them.
The biggest problem, however, is the action scenes. Most are as opaque as this crucial moment: “He darted towards Taryn, scooped her up, and stretched forward. He pointed his free hand at the doors.” Free hand?
If character, plot and action were clearer, the great dollops of fairy weirdness that The Absolute Book dishes up might be easier to digest. As it is, Knox’s 12th novel for adults, while enchanting in places, falls short of the hype.