Wake, by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, 2013), 445 pp., $35.00
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
The final stanza of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Next, Please’ introduces Elizabeth Knox’s novel Wake, and rings an alarm bell of sorts. So does Wake’s cover, showing five men and two women, most of whom are masked and rubber-gloved, standing by or burying bagged bodies in a mass grave. There’s a Kiwi look to the scene: a familiar style of house, a cabbage tree. The image conveys unease and indicates something nasty in our own backyard. So, I had been warned, but nothing prepared me for the first hundred pages of harrowing reading. What I read kept me awake at night, and I wondered if I could continue. Some of it haunts me still.
This disgust prompted some soul-searching. How is the reviewer to proceed in this situation? I decided to read on, guessing that the post-apocalyptic story would prove less disturbing than the apocalypse itself. (This was largely, but not entirely, true.) In any case, I am a believer in the importance of writing an honest review, offering an opinion that is essentially a subjective summation of one reader’s experience. Of course another reader may feel differently. That is a given, as they say. I would read Wake and comment on it as I would on any other work of fiction, regardless of genre. It is a novel that might be classified as Horror or Science Fiction, but these labels, while helpful for marketing a book, prove a distraction to the reviewer. This book is a narrative and Elizabeth Knox is an experienced story-teller. We read stories for all sorts of reasons – pleasure is one of many, but I found little to actually enjoy in Wake.
Elizabeth Knox has pulled a few surprises in her writing career. She burst onto the ‘NZ Literary Scene’ in 1987 with After Z-Hour, a novel signalling the arrival of an original and significant literary voice. Her subsequent output has confirmed her status as writer who continues to challenge her readers, moving from coming-of-age fiction to magical realism and fantasy. The Vintner’s Luck, perhaps her best known book, won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 1999.
Wake begins with a hiss and a roar in sleepy Tasman Bay. Constable Theresa Grey is driving back from Motueka when she is directed by a dispatcher to investigate a helicopter’s mayday call. Approaching Kahukura, she sees smoke in the distance – the crashed chopper – and a fire blazing in the town’s main street. A dazed, half-naked woman displaying bizarre injuries runs out in front of the police car. ‘The woman’s skin was cold with shock and slippery with blood.’
Theresa behaves as a competent and well-trained police officer would in these circumstances, but is soon overwhelmed by townspeople in the grip of a terrible murderous madness. There is a disturbing perversity to their behaviour – a couple she thought were kissing passionately are in fact gnawing at each other. The madness will ultimately kill off most of the people of Kahukura in ways too numerous and ghastly to mention. One character, fifteen-year-old Oscar, a keen player of computer games, describes what he sees as ‘crazy serial killer zombie stuff’. Is the reader being taken inside the gamer’s world?
Theresa survives the immediate catastrophe, as do thirteen others, who managed not to be in the front line of the massacre. They are trapped in Kahukura by a kind of force field that they call ‘the No-Go’. They have to keep themselves alive and look after one another. They have to find and bury the dead. It is extremely disturbing, as Knox intended to be. It is probably a triumph of imagination. Imagine the bleeding, the aggression and the self-harm. Imagine grotesque ways for the elderly and children to die. But what is the point of so much graphic violence?
In the weeks that follow the initial catastrophe the survivors cope as best they can. We have fourteen traumatised individuals, mostly flawed but decent people, all struggling to face their new reality – their own post-traumatic stress as well as the unknown danger that persists in Kahukura. They have their own power struggles. Some of their behaviour is downright weird and inexplicably destructive. A few individuals, including Constable Theresa and Jacob, the nurse, soldier on heroically. William, an American lawyer, plays the role of devil’s advocate. He is the outsider and the cynic. Thoroughly unlikeable, he nevertheless often says what others and even readers are thinking. With recent experience of Afghanistan he has a practical approach to the issue of hundreds of corpses.
Knox is interested in William and we get some detail of his background – a horror story in itself. Given the tragedy of his childhood, he is perhaps better placed to face the nastiness than other characters. I wondered why we got to know so much of his history and so little of other characters. Some are particularly flat. Lily, for instance, is a long-distance runner – that is her single dimension. I would have liked to know more about Theresa, an important, if not pivotal, character, but she has scant back-story.
Sometimes I struggled to remember who was who. When Dan, for example, turned up, I wondered who he was. (I could of course have re-read the details of the first section but that seemed too horrendous a task to contemplate.) Fourteen characters are certainly too many for the reader to deal with, let alone care about.
Gradually we learn some details about the phenomenon that has caused this mayhem. The reader, well, this reader at any rate, wanted an explanation. I didn’t expect a tidy scientific answer but the extreme situation depicted here demanded some clarification that made sense in this fictional world. The characters themselves are attempting to find a pattern or any kind of logic to the extraordinary events, and they have some success. But when the word ‘monster’ appeared on the page, I experienced a wave of disappointment:
‘The monster,’ she (Sam) said.
‘Huh?’ Oscar didn’t know how to articulate his confusion, but his whole body must be showing it.
‘The monster,’ she said again, then frowned in consternation. ‘Could you really not feel it?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Oscar shouted, desperate. ‘And you’re scaring me!’
The monster is the ‘Wake’. The ‘Wake’ is the monster. There is more to it of course – a mysterious dark-skinned man, lurking in the town, and glimpsed occasionally by survivors, has a crucial role to play. Likewise one of the fourteen is ‘special’ in a way that was baffling to me. Throw in kakapo and the possibility of Dissociative Identity Disorder. It is a complex plot and a clever enough contrivance, rooted in history and magic, which some readers may find satisfying. (I am not opposed to the idea of magic but it has to sneak up on me and be persuasive.)
Wake is certainly a page-turner. After my revulsion at Part One, I became engaged with the story, wanting the fourteen to survive long term. I didn’t want to find them continually assailed by more weirdness and violence that seemed protracted and unnecessary. For all sorts of reasons I wanted the book to end, and end happily. I was left with a number of questions about this grim and unpleasant story. Had I grasped the meaning of the ending? Was the novel about mortality or about how we behave in extremis? The black ship is coming for all of us but few will have their mettle tested by monsters and aliens. Does Wakehave something to say about the human condition or is it, in the end, nothing more than ‘crazy serial killer zombie stuff’?
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a novelist, short-story writer and reviewer living near Dunedin.