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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

2015/03: Mortal Fire -- Elizabeth Knox

... it wasn't like kissing a boy. His lips had no flavour, and his body no smell, and all I could hear was this twittering, like birdsong. Or like a hearth fire when the flames have gone from the coals and they squeak and tinkle. That sound. And I've heard it ever since. [p. 395]
Mortal Fire is set in the same alternate world as the Dreamhunter Duet: the islands we know as New Zealand are called Southland, were discovered by Vasco da Gama, and were settled by the descendants of Saint Lazarus. (I summarise: there's quite a bit more about Southland history and sociology in Mortal Fire.)

The novel's protagonist is sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie, a girl of several names. (Names are pretty important here.) Her teachers know her as maths prodigy Agnes; her mother, the redoubtable war-heroine Sisima, named her Akanesi; her surname is that of her stepfather the professor, because she doesn't know, and her mother isn't telling, the identity of her father.

The year is 1959. Southland no longer has dream palaces, but that doesn't mean it is without magic. Canny can sometimes see what she terms 'the Extra', a quality of objects which sometimes resembles strings of Greek letters and sometimes is less distinct. She notices that a famous landmark is bedecked with Extra. What is it distracting attention from? Ah yes: the house on Terminal Hill, with its mysterious and fascinating prisoner, Ghislain.

Canny is camping with her stepbrother Sholto and Sholto's fiancee Susan in the Zarene valley. There's something odd about the Zarenes. Sholto interviews some of the Zarenes as part of his investigation into a devastating mine fire thirty years earlier: he is perplexed by the fire itself, and by what the older Zarenes tell him about the survivors. And there's a photograph from a school picnic: 'boy levitating rocks'.

Mortal Fire is published as a young adult novel, but that implies neither simplicity nor sugar-coating. There are some grim scenes -- told starkly and without hand-wringing -- and plenty of subtle, complex ideas. Among other themes, the novel deals with racism, with illegitimacy, with forgiveness and the lack of it; with death and destruction, whether intentional or no. Things don't always work out kindly for good people: but sometimes, there is a moment of sweet closure, however belated.

Knox's prose, as usual, is subtle, evocative, irresistable. She builds up the mystery with hints and allusions: the under-appreciated sense of smell, for instance, is important here, as are childrens' names and the behaviour of bees. I confess I was only completely convinced by the ending on second reading -- but I think I was rushing through the novel at first, relishing every page. Mortal Fire, unlike some other books of my acquaintance, definitely rewards repeated readings. And it feels, somehow, like summer.

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