Monday, 20 January 2014

Wake by Elizabeth Knox (VUP 2013)

I haven’t seen or read a horror story since I was ten.  One of my older sister’s rented a Friday the 13th film and I watched it with her and my younger sister, Tania.  There was one scene in particular which put me off horror – a sword welding man lay under a bed and when someone slept on the bed the sword went through the mattress and the person who lay on it.  For months afterwards I checked under my bed before I went to sleep.  One night, I had been lying in bed in the room I shared with Tania, and I got up to go to the loo and when I returned to bed and snuggled down into the blankets I felt the mattress being pushed up from below. 

            “Taannnia,” I cried out, thinking she was in her bed and could help me.  My fears about the sword welding man were being realised, and I chastened myself for not checking under the bed again after my visit to the loo. 

            Tania didn’t come to help me.  She was laughing under my bed. 

            My terror was real and the circumstances in which it occurred were very ordinary which I think is one point that Knox is making in Wake.  Everybody was just going about their ordinary lives in Kahukura when the area is taken over by mass insanity.  As violence takes over most people, there are a handful of survivors who have not been affected but are left trying to live when they find themselves entrapped by a mysterious force.  The survivors don’t descend into chaos, rather they work together to ensure their survival with the resources available in the town.

            What I enjoyed in this novel are the strong female characters, in particular Theresa, the cop, and Belle the DOC worker.  The other characters are a reflection of the New Zealand population: Dan the truck driver, Jacob the nurse, and William the American, to name a few.  While it seemed quite fortunate that a nurse was amongst the survivors to help with injuries for those who did survive, what Knox does show is how the individual characters cope, how they deal (or don’t deal) with their own demons.  Lily handles the situation by running, while Holly cooks for everyone, and Oscar plays his video games in an attempt at normality while they’re holed up in the flash Spa resort.  That is what also struck me about the novel, where you might expect the power to be off and infrastructure down, the power is on so the immediate needs of cooking and washing are not problematic for the group, it is just the group’s movements that are limited because they cannot walk out of the ‘no go’ zone, which is like a force field that keeps them in, and everybody else out.  In contrast to the stark situation the characters are in, their immediate concerns of food and shelter are taken care of in a beautiful part of New Zealand. 

            One of the most salient features in the novel is duality.  The members of the group don’t know what to make of Sam, especially when Sam insists that there are two of her.  An intelligent and savvy Sam, and another who is not so quick on the up-take but who works physically hard for the group.  The division between intellect and physicality is like a mind/body split, but whereas a Cartesian dualism suggests that the mind is in charge, Knox challenges this notion and suggests that it is a synergy between the mind and body that is the only way the group can survive.

            I admire Knox’s writing and her imagination, an imagination that can move from literary fiction, to YA and back to literary horror.  While I don’t typically read fantasy or horror, the interactions between the characters are arresting, and Knox shows how disasters can strike at any time (as further proof there was an earthquake while I was writing this), and how people try to do their best when confronted by monsters who may, or may not, lurk under your bed.

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