REVIEW

Elizabeth Knox's The Absolute Book is a stunning mix of genres, characters and inventions

Award-winning New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox
Award-winning New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox

The Absolute Book, New Zealand award-winning author Elizabeth Knox's 13th novel, is a stunning mixture of genre invention, as might be expected from an author who won the New Zealand Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2019 and was appointed Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature in 2020

Elizabeth Knox's brother-in-law was killed in a road accident leaving behind a wife and four children. The driver was convicted of manslaughter. Knox subsequently commented, "he wasn't tried for murder but in effect, the spite and carelessness of the act was murderous".

In The Absolute Book, the main character, 19-year-old Taryn Cornick, is devastated when her older sister Beatrice is killed in a hit-and-run. The driver, Timothy Webber, is convicted of manslaughter but Taryn is convinced that Beatrice was murdered. Six years later, after Webber's release from prison, he is found dead in suspicious circumstances. Years later, Taryn is deemed the main cold case suspect by London detective Jacob Berger.

Now 33, Taryn has written an international bestseller, "The Feverish Library", emphasising the importance of and the threats to libraries, with a last chapter on the history of book burning. The book's success brings unwelcome attention to Taryn by those searching for an ancient scroll box, the mysterious and powerful "Firestarter", which has survived numerous library fires over the centuries.

A strange young man, called Shift, informs Taryn that the worlds of humans and the "Sidhe", Gaelic supernaturals, are in a trans-dimensional battle in which the search for the Firestarter is crucial and also that the death of her sister might have been collateral damage. Taryn becomes both the hunter of the "Absolute Book" and the hunted.

Knox has said that she wanted to write "an arcane thriller that didn't just hint at the magical and mystical". In a narrative of over 600 pages, full of literary allusions, blending of history, myth and magic, Knox echoes the juxtaposition of reality and unreality in time streams of the novels of Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

The stories of Taryn, Jacob and Shift begin within the contemporary settings of extremist populism, government surveillance and climate change. Then, it becomes multi-dimensional as they interact with mythological figures, especially the Celtic, with a crucial setting in Purgatory, where it "wasn't forever living with your mistakes; it was forever defending your decisions".

The Absolute Book is an ambitious book of hope, loss, and ultimately redemption, played out on a cosmic scale.

This story A stunning mix of genres, characters and inventions first appeared on The Canberra Times.