BOOK REC: The Absolute Book – Elizabeth Knox

A large dark green book cover held against a backdrop of climbing jasmine with small pink flowers. The book cover has leaves painted on it coming out of the image of an open book and, in orange, the words: Open. Enter. ESCAPE.

Author: Elizabeth Knox (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Michael Joseph

Genre: Contemporary fantasy, original fairy tale

Taryn Cornick barely remembers the family library. Since her sister was murdered, she’s forgotten so much.

Now it’s all coming back. The fire. The thief. The scroll box. People are asking questions about the library. Questions that might relate to her sister’s murder.

And something called The Absolute Book.

A book in which secrets are written – and which everyone believes only she can find. They insist Taryn be the hunter. But she knows the truth.

She is the hunted …

The Absolute Book is a tale of sisters, ancient blood, a forgotten library, murder, revenge and a book that might just have the answer to everything.

So, this book.

My friend sent me a proof of this book back in FEBRUARY. The book was released in MARCH. And then I dithered and dothered around reading it until June. In October, I finally started writing up my thoughts. December, and I’m ready to post. My deepest apologies to any marketing spend that was used on me, I hope that maybe this can be re-circulated when the paperback comes out.

Part of my hesitance was because, well, it’s absolutely a book alright. A lot of book. An absolute beast, never mind the absolute book. It clocks in at over 600 pages and every time I looked at it my brain went “hahahaha no” and “ain’t nobody got time for that” simultaneously. Which was ridiculous because I was sent it while we were still locked down, and I could go nowhere and do nothing. I’ve talked a little before about how large books can psych me out of reading them (see: The Priory of the Orange Tree), but I think a general lack of focus and malaise as a result of a very long winter in lockdown probably contributed to that more than a little. (I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve almost found this year harder than last year.)

This is an unusual book. Published by Michael Joseph, one of Penguin Random House’s literary imprints, I think it makes a difference when reading it to remind yourself that it is a literary book, not a straight fantasy genre book. Given as I’ve written about how it can bother me when genre fiction is split between literary-speculative and “good”, and traditional genre and “mainstream”, it may come as something of a shock to hear me say that this isn’t a fantasy book. It is a fantasy book – it’s about fairies, and angels, and demons, and travel between worlds, and inter-species war; but where it differs is the pacing. It’s paced like a literary book, and the focus of the narrative is trained in a way that suits a literary scope, not a fantasy one. As a result, my reading experience was very different.

It felt like I spent a large portion of this novel waiting for the plot to start. What I would have expected to be the focus of the story, were this a traditional fantasy novel, didn’t begin until about 150 pages before the end. There’s what seems to be a lot of set up, establishing characters and a – for want of a better word – McGuffin, only for the book to pivot about midway through and characters who had previously seemed central to the narrative suddenly became very passive, reactive and with limited agency. It was difficult to try and unpack the relationships here, and the dynamics, because some elements were dealt with in detail but others were left relatively unexamined so seemed a surprise when they changed.

It’s a fascinating book, with a lot of subtlety, and told by a writer who has clearly got a great understanding of traditional folklore, mythology and legend. There’s something Arthurian about the backstory created and unravelled, and epic about its scope and execution. But again, that backstory isn’t the point either. For a fantasy book, it would have been, but this isn’t a fantasy book. It doesn’t necessarily lean heavily on its themes but they are there – renewal, identity, the importance of acknowledging and understanding the past, while also using it to shape your future rather than letting it hold you back from it. Does your past define you, explain you, shape you, or does it restrict you?

I can’t say I’ve experienced a book this long with this level of subtlety, or one with such grand scope in terms of plot events that are then not the focus or point of the story in many ways. It was an unusual experience for me. In some ways, it might be interesting to see this book rewritten in different ways – as a fantasy book, as a thriller, as a mystery, as an adventure story, as a fairy tale. Each of these angles would present the content in different ways and bring different elements to the fore. There’s so much here, it’s almost like the beginning of sculpture. The shapes are hinted at, but the final form is as yet unfinished. The reader can choose where they want to focus, the book won’t tell you. This is quite hard work for a book that is 600+ pages, but I found it a very unique read, and something which defies the genre that it would normally be set in, despite being grounded so firmly within its tropes and mythology.

Briefly:

  • A unique work of fiction – an original fairy tale that is uses the genre as a backdrop more than the reason for the story.
  • It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little muted in tone. This is perhaps because of its literary leanings – the main character has been through a trauma, she is distanced from her life, so the world doesn’t seem as vivid as one would expect.
  • If you are looking for a fantasy epic, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for something poetic, experimental, unusual and philosophical, then try this.

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