The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox

Reviewed by Max Dunbar

In Lords and Ladies, his Faerie novel, Terry Pratchett quotes an old folk rhyme:

My mother said I never should
Play with the fairies in the wood

Thanks to the marvellous L Space website, I’ve found the rest of the poem, which doesn’t have quite the same resonance: ‘If I did, she would say/You naughty girl to disobey/Your hair won’t grow, your shoes won’t shine/You naughty little girl, you shan’t be mine!’

Lords and Ladies is about a country village that gets invaded by killer elves. Pratchett’s use of folk rhyme is part of his argument that superstitions endure for a reason, to protect us from the inhuman and otherworldly. The elves in his world are heartless aristocrats, but project a glamour that attracts nonetheless. The faeries in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are more interesting as characters, but their role in her story is at best chaotic and at worst malignant. 

Which is all to say that fantasy novelists of my experience have heeded the warning never to play with fairies in the wood. It was fun therefore to read a novel in which the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ are positive influences for once. Kind of. 

Writing about works of fantasy can be difficult. You’re hesitant to explain what’s going on, because in most fantasy novels part of the major revelation is about how the strange world works. There is so much going on in The Absolute Book, however, that it does not feel like a spoiler to explain. Troubled writer Taryn Cornick is transported to fairyland because she has, without knowing it, become possessed by a demon that wants to steal a secret box that has been on her family’s land for generations. The faerie realm is ordinarily a scary place: in Jonathan Strange, it’s a world where court balls last for days in underworld caverns and endless processions celebrate innumerable slaughters. 

Not a bit of that with The Absolute Book! Arriving in the Other Lands, Taryn looks out upon

a long fall of folded hills and valleys, each hilltop a little lower than the one before, a rolling country with the chalky line of a bare-earth path, visible here and there between copses and limestone escarpments, and not a wall, or hedge, or highway in sight. Not a church tower or town hanging under an exhalation of car exhaust.

Taryn shares the faeries’ food, listens to their histories, and takes part in their customs. When the sidhe boats converge for the Moot – more of that later – the majesty of it is almost overwhelming to read.

She noticed that the setting sun was on her left hand. The Senisteingh emptied to the north. They had travelled downriver to warmer climes. So that meant that the Sidh she knew was in a southern hemisphere, and her world and it weren’t mapped onto each other in any way with which she could orient herself.

For perhaps the first time in her life, Taryn feels at peace in this strange land, and she is not alone. Faeries are legendary soul-snatchers and Taryn meets many humans, taken from slave ships and battle-trenches and asylums through various points of human history, who have decided they prefer things in this odd reality. The sidhe are basically good in this novel, and indeed – and we’ll get to that later – Taryn thinks there’s some ways in which our world can learn from the fair folk. But there is a catch. The humans taken into fairyland have only a century or so to spend there – after this, they will be sent to hell forever, as per a contract the sidhe have made with the demons. The quotas of souls are hammered out at each year’s Moot. 

Every fairy story has an evil bargain. Taryn is haunted by the loss of her sister Beatrice, deliberately mown down by a simpleton sadist many years ago. Authorities don’t want to take a chance on a murder charge, so Beatrice’s killer serves only five years. On a trip on the Rockies, Taryn meets a guide, ‘The Muleskinner’, who offers to take care of the problem. Sure enough, Taryn later hears that Bea’s killer was himself murdered shortly after his release from prison. Taryn’s struggle to come to terms with her own guilt over this crime is at the centre of her character arc, and one of the most gripping chapters is when the Muleskinner turns up at Taryn’s home. Taryn’s impulsive complicity is a microcosm of the theme Elizabeth Knox is trying to argue in macro – that as a society it’s not worth going after easy wins at the expense of a sustainable future. 

Taryn is at her most compelling, as a character, when she talks about her own work. She has written a book about library fires and talks with authority about her subject: we all know the Nazis burned books in the street but Taryn can quantify the numbers of books lost in WW2 bombing raids: ‘Beauvais, forty-two thousand books; Tours, two hundred thousand; Douai, one hundred and ten thousand; Chartres, twenty-three thousand…’ She sees our world’s problem as ‘a refusal of one of the great conditions of history: that today cannot know what tomorrow will need. It’s always better to keep books. In the same way that it’s better not to pollute waterways and cover arable land with asphalt.’

You don’t know today what tomorrow will need – a truism, argued subtly through this novel, except at the end, which I found a bit too convenient: you’ll see what I mean when you get there. Our country is surely in a parlous state if it needs battalions of elvish creatures to redeem it. But you might disagree. That’s the charm of The Absolute Book: not absolute, but contested.

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Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Elizabeth Knox, The Absolute Book, (Michael Joseph, 2021). 978-0241473924, 400pp., hardback.

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