Author(s): Elizabeth Knox
Taryn Cornick believes that the past is behind her – her sister’s death by violence, and her own ill-conceived revenge. She has chosen to live a life more professional than personal. She has written a book about the things that threaten libraries – insects, damp, light, fire, carelessness and uncaring. The book is a success, but not all of the attention it brings her is good. There are questions about a fire in the library at Princes Gate, her grandparents’ house, and about an ancient scroll box known as the Firestarter. A policeman, Jacob Berger, has questions about a cold case. There are threatening phone calls. And a shadowy young man named Shift appears, bringing his shadows with him. Taryn, Jacob, Shift – three people are driven towards a reckoning felt in more than one world. The Absolute Book is an epic fantasy, intimate in tone. A book where hidden treasures are recovered; where wicked things people think they’ve shaken from their trails find their scent again. A book about beautiful societies founded on theft and treachery, and one in which dead sisters are a living force. It is a book of journeys and returns, set in London, Norfolk, and the Wye Valley; in Auckland, New Zealand; in the Island of Apples and Summer Road of the Sidhe; at Hell’s Gate; in the Tacit with its tombs; and in the hospitals and train stations of Purgatory. Cover: Catherine Nelson, Lost (2014). 'An angelic book, an apocalyptic book, an astounding book.' —Francis Spufford ‘The master is present. To read Knox on such a huge canvas – to be immersed in her worlds, wrapped in her intelligence and craft so completely – is an experience not be missed. Lessing, Le Guin, Knox – books where the best hearts meet the best minds meet the best imaginations are few and far between. The Absolute Book is a triumph of fantasy grounded in the reality and challenges of the moment we live in.’ —Pip Adam
There are many adjectives one could use to describe The Absolute Book. Compelling, compulsive, confusing, considered, crafty and crafted, sublime, beautiful, tragic, awesome (in all the senses of that word), clever, theatrical, hysterical and hilarious, complex, lucid, layered and rich. And these are just some of the words worth attaching to this very, very good novel. It is an immense book — 650 pages of fascination and revelation. Taryn Cornick’s sister Beatrice has been killed — murder or accident? There is no question in Taryn’s mind. Seven years on, she thinks she has moved on but a chance meeting with a hunter, the Muleskinner, who is beguiled by her and her sadness, leads to a chain of unimaginable events that will open gateways to other worlds, states of mind, story-telling and soul-searching. Cornick’s book about libraries and fires has garnered some notice, and she is due on the tour circuit when a police officer, Jacob Berger, starts getting interested in a cold case — the death of Tim Webber, the driver of the car that ran her sister down. Berger suspects foul play and starts to dig. His connection with Taryn will reveal a lot more than he bargained for. Jump back to Taryn and Bea’s childhood visits to their grandparents’ estate, Princess Gate, and a strange encounter with a young scholar, Battle, who is obsessed with finding a book known as the Firestarter. The girls playing in the library witness from behind the curtains Battle’s attempt to start a fire to reveal the mysterious object, and so begins the first glimpse of our encounters with demons, enchantments and story-telling. The Absolute Book moves seamlessly from reality to fantasy. Unlike many books that move between worlds, there is no obvious change in writing style or tone — you are just there — through the gate in the other world with nothing to jar your reading, pushed along by the action. There is much going on at all times on many levels! Knox makes the world within, beside or outside, parallel (whichever it is) believable by taking us with her characters. We are curious and fearless despite demons, the sometimes cold appraisal of the Sidhe, the changes in the landscape, the power and mystery of Shift. In previous Knox books, we have encountered mythical and magical creatures and The Absolute Book is no exception. Blending Norse mythology (the ravens play a mighty role), faerie folklore, popular culture and ancient ritual, history and religion (yes, there are angels), this book has a plethora of layers, which should sink it into a pit of confusion, but it doesn’t — it soars. The brilliance is in the craft — in the language and pace — and in the absolute beauty of the description of the lands and all that live on them (whether on Earth or in the Sidh). It’s a book with a fascinating story — you will want to read on and be taken by Taryn, Jacob and Shift to the places they (and we) must go. It’s story-telling at its best and Elizabeth Knox at her best... so far.
Longisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards - Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize 2020