No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, July 30, 2010

2010/56: Daylight -- Elizabeth Knox

He thought of the glow on Eve Moskelute's face as she said, "Someone had seen the butcher ... someone had followed the soldier." "There's always someone," she'd said. The butcher killed the soldier, and someone broke a chamois's neck and placed it on the butcher's doorstep, as though in payment. Bad wondered, Who was 'someone'? (p. 110)

Two men are visiting Monaco independently, both in search of meaning, explanation and resolution. Brian Phelan (known as 'Bad') is a New Zealander, a policeman and a born survivor: he's walked away from a viewing-platform collapse that killed several of his friends, a flash flood in a French cave, and most recently a bomb in an underground carpark. Recuperating from this incident, he takes a holiday to his old caving haunts, swiftly parting company with his sensible (and rather controlling) girlfriend. By chance, Bad becomes involved in the retrieval of a body from the sea: despite the blistered skin, the dead woman -- with her striking hair, blonde at the roots and dark at the ends -- bears a strong resemblance to the woman who rescued him from the cave nine years before.

Also in the area is Father Daniel Octave, mixed-race, Canadian, Jesuit: he's hoping to gather sufficient evidence to progress the canonisation of Martine Dardo, a nun who, during the German occupation of the area, led a group of villagers through a dark cave to safety and was subsequently executed. Daniel doesn't know what to make of the fact that the body in Martine's tomb is not Martine at all, but a Nazi officer.

There's a third protagonist, Eve Moskelute, though less of the story is seen from her point of view than from those of Bad and Daniel. Eve is a writer, most famous for her translation of an obscure work of French literature, an eighteenth-century novel called Lumiere du Jour (in English, Daylight): 'a romance with a touch of the infernal' (p. 101). Eve is the widow of Jean Ares, a celebrated painter, old enough to be her grandfather, who immortalised her in his art. Now she lives quietly fends off her dead husband's would-be biographers and curious admirers, and keeps the secret of her twin sister Dawn, who's generally believed to have died in 1969.

The dark 'world beneath the world' of caves, tunnels and medieval passageways is explored and examined as thoroughly as Knox's perennial themes of God, mortality, belonging and looking in from outside. Daniel and Bad are both outsiders, without roots, in search of meaning. It's through their eyes -- and their emotions -- that this unusual variation on the vampire theme plays out.

Knox's The Vintner's Luck is one of my favourite novels. Daylight, in which vampires lurk in the subterranean caves and tunnels of the French-Italian border, didn't engage me as much. This is not a horror novel (though there are unsettling passages); it's not a murder mystery; it's not a romance. It's not a philosophical treatise, though the theological debate underpins the narrative like a bass line. Daylight brings together many elements, but it never quite gelled for me: I didn't engage.

Knox's prose is by turns poetic, startling, deliberately remote. (There are passages where most of the speech is reported -- "Daniel must have said something ... because Ila answered him." (p.339) -- which technique distances the reader from the characters, deadens the emotional affect.) The landscape Knox describes is as alive, as real, as the characters -- and frankly more appealing.

Oh, and I wish the copy-editor had corrected 'Alan Turling' to 'Alan Turing'.


  1. Anonymous9:50 am

    Hi there, I was just wondering where Alan Turing was mentioned in this book?