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Elizabeth Knox. Photo/Ebony Lamb/Supplied

The fantastic power of Elizabeth Knox's The Absolute Book

Elizabeth Knox has penned a magical invitation back to a childlike imaginative state, writes Charlotte Grimshaw.

Once upon a time, I was a child. My father was an android, my mother was a witch, my brother was a goblin and my blue-eyed sister was a golden princess. These things I knew, just as I believed the bungalow at the top of our street contained a warlock, and that our house when empty was so terrifying I couldn’t enter it. The golden princess and I played continuous games of pretend, and at school my imaginative make-believe with friends was so intense and inventive that we would come inside glazed, still absorbed in some Narnian-style dream. I loved fantasy stories, with their thrilling sense that life was a facade hiding mysterious, frightening, wild elements.

Just before adolescence, to my little sister’s bitter dismay, a new tone entered our games. It crept up gradually, causing the princess to howl in protest and beat me with her tiny fists. I had begun to introduce a treacherous hint of tongue-in-cheek. This hardened into irony and, fatally, a keen sense of the ridiculous. She would detect my satirical ambivalence and laugh. Then she would storm off. Everything was ruined, because I’d got too old.

The fantasy retreated but the facade remained, and the question became one of psychology. What really lies beneath? The smiling acquaintance in his black coat and hat is no longer the warlock you might once have imagined, but still, what is it about him that’s uncanny? An odd quality marks him out. Perhaps his mask has slipped, and behind the small talk is a glimpse of something dark: fraudulence, manipulativeness, aggression.

In the course of inventing, which I went on doing by writing fiction, the question became one of authenticity. How do people behave in given situations? What are the ironies and dramas in relationships? What is crime, betrayal, generosity, love? If children are naturally narcissistic (and some rare adults never lose that quality), the path to artistic truth seemed to be to try to understand the human mind, to develop empathy.

Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book is an epic 650-page novel that moves between real and fantasy worlds. Its likeable human protagonist, Taryn Cornick, encounters demons, fairy people and talking birds. In one early scene, ordinary characters in a contemporary French town are transported into a parallel universe. Suddenly, it’s night in an alien landscape, someone is wounded and action is required. These mortals don’t do what psychological plausibility would require; they don’t collapse into a terrified fetal position and assume they’ve gone insane. Instead, they react as if – like the author – they’ve done all this before. They barely discuss, let alone question, what’s happened. They find a path, seek help; they deal with the situation as best they can. Despite experiencing extraordinary violence and shocks throughout, Taryn is remarkably unaffected by fear.

Paradoxically, in order to enter into this scenario, a suspension of adult imagination is required. If you take that critical sense offline, there can be a return to some flattened, prelapsarian state of innocence where you lose your hard-earned understanding and start pinning your magical thinking to people in the way you did as a child, with only a rudimentary sense of human complexity. In fantasy, the creator retains agency, projecting an inner-generated “reality” onto the world instead of interpreting it. So, the acquaintance in his black coat and hat can become a warlock again, disguised as human, hiding in plain sight.

It’s these differences in aesthetic sensibility that complicate a critical response. How best to do the book justice on its own terms? Perhaps a connoisseur of fantasy would be the only appropriate commentator, I thought. I’m glad I proceeded though. I can record that I enjoyed The Absolute Book outrageously.

Was it because I’m an incurable realist that I enjoyed it so much? Forces came together; I slipped into another world. I didn’t collapse into a fetal position protesting about plausibility; I didn’t refuse to go on because, to a grown-up, none of this made sense. I followed the plot all the way from west to east, and I went on thinking about its effect when I was finished. The story pinned itself to me as though I were some figure on whom the author had fixed her gaze, ignoring my human qualities and designating me one of her Taken people.

The Absolute Book’s power is in the skill and pace of Knox’s storytelling, the perfect spinning of the intricate plot, the sharp dialogue and luminous evocation of place. Knox’s landscapes are vivid and beautiful, both the earthly and the otherworldly. I was carried along without objection, and the great pleasure for me, along with the simple one of wanting to know what would happen next, was the feeling that my realist mind had been flattened out – that I had, temporarily, due to the intensity and momentum of the narrative, made some kind of mental shift, lost the compulsion to search for psychological depth (always a source of disquiet) and gone back to an earlier imaginative state, one that pulsed with mysterious possibility.

While I read the novel, the man in his black coat and hat was a warlock, shape-shifter, demon. It was strangely refreshing; it was rejuvenating. I was transported out of my sensibility, back to a foreign country – the past.

THE ABSOLUTE BOOK, by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.