(2013) Elizabeth Knox, Corsair, trdpbk £12.99, 443pp, ISBN 978-1-4721-1753-3
Wake is a 2013 novel by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox, just released (2015) in the British Isles as a trade paperback. This is her tenth book, and she has previously been long-listed for the Orange prize, so I had some expectations for this story.
Plot-wise, this is a Kiwi version of Under the Dome, with hints of the The Walking Dead at the start. Everybody goes mad in a small New Zealand town, committing acts of savagery against themselves and others, then messily kill themselves. Not quite everybody: there are thirteen survivors, almost all at the fringes of the town when the madness took hold. With the madness comes an impenetrable barrier surrounding the town, and the survivors have to fend for themselves. But they are not alone. There is a mystery man who helps but won’t engage, and something else. Before long, things start to go wrong…
There are some imaginative twists and insights in this book. The speculative fiction parts are, for the most part, credible given the fundamental oddness of the premise and whilst it does not entirely make sense, it serves as a useful vehicle for the people stories here.
There is an interesting set of characters here, too. The point of view shifts and slides but if this is anyone’s story, it is Sam’s. She is the inexplicable additional element who drives this story. Two people in one: a simple one and a sophisticated one, and the only person touched by the madness to survive.
Or maybe it’ is Theresa Grey’s story. She bookends the novel and is the book’s primary observer, but she shares space with William, an American lawyer with a cold heart just begging for redemption, Jacob, the Christian nurse trying to make sense of it all, Belle, the custodian of a reserve for endangered birds, Bub, her Maori lover, Oscar, a gangling teenager, Warren the drunk, Kate the obsessive runner, Holly the obsessive homemaker, Curtis the obsessive griever and… but you get the picture. Thirteen characters, each with a story to tell and issues to resolve.
The plot is an interesting artifice, and the book is well constructed so that things that seem bizarrely random early on make perfect sense later. But the book is mainly about people, and there are really too many of them for Knox to dig deeply enough to satisfy. That said, the Sam storyline is well delivered and original – around half way through the book I found myself really engaging in her fate.
The opening turns out to be a diversion. For a couple of chapters you could be forgiven for thinking you are reading some sort of zombie horror and (if that’s not your thing) be tempted to put it back on the shelf, or (if that is your thing) end up being very disappointed when the novel turns into something much more subtle. The town-goes-mad opening is a bit off, though, as if Knox was a bit uncomfortable writing it. None of the sane characters react in the way you would expect to the carnage around them – hey ho, the gas station’s blown up. Oh, I see the petunias are out… (that is an impression, not a paraphrase). Maybe that’s Knox’s way of saying this book is not your average slasher horror and that the reader should skim those bits and get to the real story. I have still got my doubts about the opening – I think it is a major and unintentional misdirect which may prevent Wake from finding its real audience – but the rest of the book is substantially better.
Did I like it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. Her back catalogue is a mix of juvenile fiction, fantasy and straight fiction. Wake’s got me so intrigued I am going to check out the other books – I’ll let you know what I unearth.
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