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Elizabeth Knox’s latest novel Wake (VUP) is properly creepy. It’s the sort of book that’ll have you up late at night convinced you can hear strange noises outside your bedroom window. As gory as it is compelling, it’s also – despite being firmly in the realms of the supernatural genre – a distinctly New Zealand story.
At first glance the whole scenario does have a dusted-off, recycled quality. You may feel you’ve read or seen similar things before. But what Knox does with the basic plot is inventive, keenly observant and makes for a great read.
The story begins on an ordinary morning in the Tasman Bay settlement of Kahukura. Suddenly its inhabitants are overtaken by mass insanity, killing themselves and each other in the vilest of ways. Afterwards there are only a handful of people left alive and they find themselves trapped within an invisible force field, unable to communicate with the outside world. To survive they must band together and re-establish some sort of order. But that isn’t easy. There are personality clashes, tussles for power and moral dilemmas, there is attraction and desperation, and unbeknownst to all but one of them, they are being stalked by an invisible entity that is preying on their pain and weaknesses.
It’s the amount of reality Knox injects into her fantasy that helps make Wake so gripping. The survivors must deal with all sorts of practicalities – dispose cleanly of the dead, feed themselves as well as the kakapo at the local nature reserve, rescue the community’s pets, deal with medical mishaps, keep up their morale. And beyond all these everyday struggles is the blackness they seem to have no defence against that threatens to engulf them.
You might not have known it from earlier titles like The Vintner’s Luck and Daylight, but Knox turns out to be a mistress of suspense. She teases her reader with mysteries. Who is the elusive black man living on their fringes? What exactly is going on with care worker Sam who one minute seems a bit lacking and the next super-sharp? Why is lawyer William so detached? And then one by one the survivors start dying…
This is a story about evil and blackness; but it’s also about compassion, sacrifice, resilience and hope. It’s a curious book, a different sort of dark than New Zealand fiction usually serves up, a page-turner that delivers great prose plus a helter-skelter plot and flashes of gallows humour .
Wake may be about monsters and aliens; it may owe a debt to Stephen King’s Under The Dome and to Hollywood horror, but if you’re looking for an unpretentious, authentic and insightful piece of fiction about ordinary Kiwis coping in extraordinary circumstances, this novel is it.