Stranded in hamlet of horror
Wake By Elizabeth Knox Constable & Robinson, 443pp, $29.95
In Australia, at least, New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox is best known for The Vintner’s Luck, her strangely sensual 1998 novel about a 19th-century winemaker and an angel. Before that book Knox had published three novels, and a trilogy of autobiographical novellas, but in the years since she has published seven more. Like The Vintner’s Luck all have been distinguished not just by the remarkable force of Knox’s writing, its thrilling, almost erotic charge, but by the sense that she is mapping a sort of dreamscape, a world — or worlds — in which fantasy and reality overlap, and in which the imaginative act of storytelling and magic are often two sides of the same coin.
Wake, Knox’s 11th full-length novel, continues this process. Set in Kahukura, an imaginary small town somewhere outside Nelson, New Zealand, it is at once an exercise in the sort of science fiction-inflected horror more commonly associated with Stephen King (with whose 2009 novel Under the Dome it shares some elements) and a psychologically acute exploration of the capacity of individuals to endure extremity and its unstable, unpredictable aftermath.
As the novel opens police officer Theresa Grey is returning to Kahukura from a routine visit to a neighbouring town when she receives a mayday from a helicopter. Racing to help she almost collides with a bloodied, half-naked woman, her manner confused and confusing, as if her mind has been overwhelmed.
In the moments afterward, Grey witnesses a series of inexplicable horrors: a couple who seem to be kissing gnawing each other’s lips off, a woman who shreds her face with her fingernails before biting off her own tongue, a pack of