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

Monday, July 07, 2014

2014/27: Wake -- Elizabeth Knox

And whose thought was that anyway—about the trigger being an open quote? Dan might occasionally use air quotes, but he wasn’t very confident about how to use quote marks on paper. It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg. [loc.2613]
One weekday morning, almost all of the inhabitants of Kahukura are plunged into madness. Silently, they commit nonsensical atrocities upon themselves and one another. Then they go still. Then they die. And then the survivors, dazed, find that they are locked in with the bodies of the dead: there is an impermeable barrier around the town.

Knox knows her precedents, as we're reminded by teenager Oscar, who has recently 'watched a whole season of Lost; played Oblivion, and Bioshock, and Mass Effect—' [loc.1328]. There is a rag-tag group of survivors -- though, really, their 'survival' is more a case of being immune to the phenomenon -- including a star athlete, an American lawyer, a capable but overwhelmed policewoman, an intellectually-disabled (or mentally ill?) care worker, a fisherman. There is a Mystery: the 'No-Go', the invisible bubble that separates them from the rest of the world. Isolation and confusion, the grim work of burial, the need to share resources, the interpersonal frictions: all standard. Wake might initially seem to be another take on the zombie trope, but once the initial mania has passed it's more science-fictional than that. (One character is described as being 'like Superman, or the Doctor; one of those judicious, sequestered aliens of fiction' [loc.3787]).

It's a very New Zealand novel. Disclaimer: I am not a New Zealander. But I've visited Mapua, which in the novel is near Kahukura and which has the same ambience; and I've talked at length with New Zealand friends about their culture and society. Wake features a kakapo preserve with predator-proof fencing (the No-Go bulges slightly, so that the preserve is wholly within the quarantined area). Maori words, untranslated, are scattered through the novel: one of the characters is Maori. And Kahukura's cats are all being fed by the survivors. These are not just shades of local colour: they are all germane to the plot.

Knox's writing is compelling. Her images are clear, precise and surprising ('it seemed to him that he’d spent his life with his back to the sun and his face to a wall, writing on its white surface, working in his own shadow' [loc.4526]; 'his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall' [loc.122]; 'a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire' [loc.70]). And the gradual unfolding of the novel -- the secrets that everyone's kept close, the mysteries that have divorced them from the rest of the world -- is masterful. Best? worst? most tragic? of all is the revelation of the trap that has been laid. That's the aspect I couldn't stop thinking about: and I have decided not to write about it here.

Wake is a novel about what you hold onto when you have lost almost everything; about what you give up, when you have already given up hope.

We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love. After the worst has happened our fears are retrospective. We keep trying to warn ourselves. Our now useless fears come and fly around our heads. They circle us, crying. The island they might have landed on, to roost, has vanished beneath the waves. What are our fears? They’re the only birds left in the air. The birds of drowned nests. [loc.905]

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