“…the book builds a thirst for its water”: Elizabeth Knox on The Absolute Book

The Absolute Book by New Zealand author, Elizabeth Knox was the novel everyone was raving about last summer. People whose bookish opinions are beyond reproach declared it their favourite read of 2019 and so it was on my list of "must reads" for the summer holidays. Alas, life got in the way a bit, so I didn't pick it up until relatively recently.

Folks, it is a good time. The Absolute Book has all the pacing and "edge of your seat" page-turning action that you'd expect from the kind of potboiler you'd buy at an airport, but with quite a bit more grace and eloquence. Despite its intimidating size (656 pages), and expecting to take much longer, I devoured the thing in a week. 

I don't want to say too much about what happens in it but there are portals to other worlds, one of which is home to a mysterious race of people called the Sidhe. There are daring escapes, alliances old and new, gods and demons, transformations, and, weirdly, an ersatz Peter Jackson.

One of the themes of the book is books (and stories) themselves, and libraries, so it is most fitting that Knox will appear (in conversation with Noelle McCarthy) at the WORD Christchurch Spring Festival at Tūranga, our own central library.

She was good enough to answer some of my pressing questions about The Absolute Book ahead of her appearance at the festival.

Your WORD Christchurch session coming up in a few weeks is being held at our central library, Tūranga and your novel The Absolute Book is unabashedly pro library. What about libraries, in particular, made you want to include that as part of the book?

I love libraries, and books with libraries in them and when I started it quickly became clear to me that the novel was shaping up, more generally, as a book about what to keep, and how sharing is keeping. So—it has things to say about the worth of libraries. Libraries as treasure houses. Libraries as refuges and centres of community. As hubs—places to come in to and go out from. (There's a lot of coming in and going out in the novel).

That said it's also a book where a group of people central to the story, the sidhe, don't even have libraries. They don't have books. They are their only memory-keepers, and while they’re smug about their long lives and perfect memories they’re also mired in guilt and regret. So, it's a book about, on one hand, being haunted, and on the other being able to forget; about being culpable, and needing to remember. It's about visibility and concealment: lost books, and hidden people, and truths too big or strange to see. It’s a book that champions keeping and remembering but also mutability, mixedness, shiftiness, change. What it isn't is a book that's keen to let you know it has thought of everything. Those books are kind of anti-library since they're like the person who always climbs above the crowd to let the crowd know what they imagine the crowd thinks. Libraries aren’t a voice and a book, they’re voices and books.

The book starts off in a very recognisable, real world setting, and then things slowly become more and more fantastical until you look around and you’re in a surrealist Purgatory and all these bizarre things are happening. Are you letting your reader gradually acclimatise to the unreality of people and places in the story so we don’t get too weirded out too fast?

Also in some ways The Absolute Book reads as a sort of literary parallel to The Da Vinci Code (the mega bestseller by Dan Brown even gets mentioned). I’m assuming that was intentional – if so, what was your motivation? This is purely speculation on my part but it did feel like you were taking some of the good things about The Da Vinci Code (the pacing, for instance – The Absolute Book fairly cracks along) while ditching the less appealing stuff (I, for one, enjoyed not reading about the distracting shapeliness of the female characters).

What I wanted was a book that looked at its outset like one of those thrillers with a scholarly hero. But one where the ‘holy blood’ isn’t so many generations removed that it is only a homeopathic holiness, as the book says.

So I wanted the suggested supernatural to come creeping and hopping and then thundering into the book. I wanted the story to go out wide but, like a good mystery, to keep doubling back and deepening the discoveries and the experiences of its characters. I wanted a sense of the far-flung, of different sorts of lives, but to stay concentrated on just a few of them, closely. So some of the worlds’ size is suggestive—the myths and mythical creatures present from early on, but hidden till the penny drops for the reader. I want the reader to feel that everything is there, but they’re only being shown what is necessary. The sense the reader gets early on that the heavens, hells, purgatorial places, earth—the worlds where souls live, and the ones where bodies live—are all fanned out around the hub of the Sidh, and tied to it by gates. Jacob imagines the worlds as a series of walled gardens with the Sidh as a central garden, but it’s more like boats tied to a single anchored boat. This is the reality that Neve and Shift and Hugin and Munin are used to, and their sense that this is the natural order is supposed to make the reader feel the same.

Also, when it comes to making things work together, it is all about atmosphere. From the moment Taryn imagines her sister running on the road under the tunnel of oaks on the night she was killed, and imagines the trees as witnesses, the narrative voice of the book is tied up with those trees (and sedges, and fruit trees, and alpine thorns) and their green prayer.

Did you purposely set out to write a book with an optimistic ending, one that portrays a hopeful future for humanity and the planet we live on, or did it just grow out of the story?

The novel is meant to be transporting and moving. It tries to bring to life some things we want, or some of us want. Like to be saved. It tries to crystalise desires and understandings around that—and it does so by stealth. All the way through, the book builds a thirst for its water.

Is the goose skirt your favourite skirt?

Sure is.

(an explanatory note about this question: Several years ago I saw Elizabeth Knox at an earlier WORD Christchurch festival. She was wearing a frankly glorious skirt featuring geese on the wing. I was so taken with it I asked if I could take a photo of it, see tweet below. At a certain point in The Absolute Book the main character, Taryn, describes her favourite skirt, which is turquoise, has pockets, and features geese...)

Are there any other times in your work that you’ve dropped your own possessions into the story?

I’ve never put another item of clothing of mine in a book. But I did put my beloved Patrick in The Angel’s Cut as the big, bold, fragrant, masterful ginger cat Obrien.

Find out more