The Absolute Book has been well received in Knox’s native New Zealand, so there was surprise when it was left off the shortlist for the Ockhams, the country’s prestigious literary prize. Some speculated that it was omitted because of its fantasy elements, and certainly Knox doesn’t hold back imaginatively: Norse gods, talking birds and a trip to purgatory feature. This can feel a bit much, and at 640 pages the novel is a lot to digest. It’s probably best to savour it — read slowly and absorb every detail of the world Knox conjures.
Elizabeth Knox is the recipient of a multitude of literary honours in her native New Zealand, with the kind of popular following that befits the luminous quality of her writing. That international success has thus far been denied her is something of a scandal, but with her latest work the tide could be about to turn. The Absolute Book has the feel of an instant classic, a work to rank alongside other modern masterpieces of fantasy such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell... The Absolute Book is everything fantasy should be: original, magical, well read. Its language is assured, lyrical yet never overwrought, and in its surprising twists of fate, its deft characterisation and constant forward momentum, it is both accessible and compelling.
There are Norse gods, references to Merlin and a tour through purgatory (as you might expect in a densely bookish book when a lost girl called Beatrice is involved). There is so much that it’s difficult to keep it all in mind. This is compounded by Knox narrating the story mostly through Taryn and Jacob, who are, of course, confounded by the fairy business kicking off around them. Sometimes their incomprehension generates tension, sometimes it just creates confusion in the telling. Knox takes a hefty risk with reader sympathy too, baiting us with Taryn’s story and then switching to the grander machinations.