Books

This New Zealand Fantasy Masterpiece Needs to Be Published in America, Like, Now

The author Elizabeth Knox and her book The Absolute Book.
The absolute author! Photo illustration by Slate. Author photo by Ebony Lamb. Book jacket courtesy Victoria University Press.

Every once in a while, as a reader, you run into one of those books that is just too big for your mind to entirely take in. It’s not that reading such a book is upsetting or frustrating, but that it is an experience of continuous awe, which can be a little exhausting at times. It is really something to be overwhelmed for hundreds of pages! You almost wish that the book would occasionally simply whelm you, but of course that’s all that most books do, even good books. And in the same way it’s occasionally clarifying to inch your feet up to the edge of a precipice and take a good look down, it’s quite bracing to come up against the hard edge of your own imagination as you try to pursue a visionary author through the limitless expanse of hers.

This is all to say that the experience of reading the New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox’s contemporary fantasy novel The Absolute Book reminded me of how I felt reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or The Left Hand of Darkness or His Dark Materials or, to move out of genre, Life After Life or The Underground Railroad. I felt that my position in relation to the book’s capacious intellect and imagination and moral purpose was a vertiginous one. It was thrilling and frightening, reading this book.

That’s why it’s such a bummer that as of right now, American readers won’t get the chance to be thrilled and frightened as I was. The novel, published by New Zealand’s Victoria University Press, hasn’t secured an American publishing deal. This is an enormous shame and a huge missed opportunity on the part of American publishers large and small, any one of which should be leaping at the chance to publish something this important, this beautiful, and this much fun.

The Absolute Book is set in contemporary England, except for the parts of it that are set in a magical fairyland, except for the parts of it that are set in Purgatory, except for the parts of it that are set in Auckland. Its cast of characters includes a cop on a cold case, a bestselling author, a company of vanished soldiers from Verdun, a charismatic killer, two talking birds, Franz Schubert, Peter Jackson, some gross demons, and any number of sidhe—uncanny, powerful fairy folk based on Irish mythology. The book opens with a terrible death, and the woman who is killed has, in her bag, a book—one of those pop conspiracy thrillers that span epochs and include lots of scenes in libraries, like The Da Vinci Code. In a note at the end of The Absolute Book, Knox talks about such “arcane thrillers” and what she’s always found enjoyable about the genre and what has frustrated her. She resolved to “set my scholarly hero, Taryn, off on a search for an arcane object that really is something, not just cause for a search.” The Absolute Book shares with these kinds of blockbusters a love of surprising action set-pieces, moments of great danger and excitement, and scenes set in libraries. But it’s written with a beauty and care befitting a book bearing epigraphs from Marlowe, Brontë, and Patricia Lockwood. And its arcane object really is something, a key to profoundly changing the world—a welcome grand gesture toward the dire times in which we live.

In The Absolute Book, a young man named Shift has a gauntlet made of gold that can create gates spanning time, space, and universes. I’m not going to give up any more of The Absolute Book’s surprises. I’ll only say that each time I thought the book was done surprising me, Knox flexed her own golden gauntlet and opened another gate and flung me through it. At the end, I was shaken and grateful for the worlds I’d seen: not just fairy worlds and Hell, but our own world, at its worst and better than we could ever imagine.

When I was finished with The Absolute Book I wanted everyone I knew to read it so I could discuss it with them. I’ll have to be satisfied, for now, with using the tried-and-tested form of a semi-deranged blog post to attempt to browbeat American publishers into acquiring it. The fact that the only way for most Slate readers to read this majestic, brain-bending novel is to pay international shipping from a bookstore in New Zealand is maddening, but it’s an opportunity as well—for any clever American publisher who wants to make a bunch of money while publishing something truly remarkable. I hope someone leaps at the chance.

Update, February 14, 2020: Good job, Slate dot com readers! Unity Books in Wellington, the bookstore linked above, told Stuff.co.nz they were “absolutely bombarded” with orders from the States. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman says the company sold out of books within 24 hours and has since gone into a fourth printing. (Adding to the excitement: Barrowman is married to Elizabeth Knox. It’s a small country!) And Thursday night Knox closed a deal for American and Canadian publication with editor Brian Tart at Viking, the publisher of (among many others) Deborah Harkness, Tana French, and Lev Grossman. Scott Miller at Trident Media was the agent. No publication date yet, but sometime relatively soon The Absolute Book should land in a bookstore near you. I can’t wait for you to read it so I can talk to you about it.