Check out that cover! Wake is the latest in my ongoing review of New Zealand novels. Most of my regular blog readers will recognise that my posts about books are part reviews and part journal entries connecting my reading to my own thoughts, experiences and events as a writer. For over two years I’ve focused on reviewing New Zealand books, often by writers who have a connection to me, regardless of the genre: Taumarunui authors (Cate Sutherland, Stuart Campbell, Nix Whittaker), online connections (Tui Allen, Susan Tarr, Julie Thomas, Mandy Hager) relatives of friends (Kate Duignan, Maurice Shadbolt), or those that have made headlines either through awards or because of controversy (Eleanor Catton, Fiona Kidman, Ted Dawe). Perhaps it’s a Nova Scotian thing – we love to celebrate the achievements and creations of those we know . . . or of those known by the ones we know . . .
Knowing my current interest in New Zealand writing, my wife bought me Wake by an author with which, until recently, I had no connection: Elizabeth Knox. It was a good purchase with a beautiful, very Kiwi cover, and a plot seemingly akin to The Walking Dead, a television series my wife and I watch together. In my early reading of it, I discovered it had more in common with Stephen King’s Under the Dome which I read several years ago: a small town, Kahukura, is cut off from the rest of the country by an invisible force creating a community of trapped survivors who might otherwise never have interacted, but now find they must live together and work towards their own salvation.
It is a very well written book with beautiful descriptions of the shore town environment and clever similes where Knox compares natural features to things like computer games and other modern elements. I was struck by Knox’s short sentences and the plethora of characters she introduces. It is chaotic at the beginning as I suppose it would be in such a situation for, not only is the town cut off, but a madness has struck the vast majority of Kahukura’s inhabitants, committing horrific violence to their neighbours and themselves.
Despite the genuine quality of the writing and the intriguing plot, it was difficult to immerse myself in the story as there were so many characters, so much chaos. Knox does a good job of stabilising things somewhat through the character of Theresa, a local police officer who, for reasons explained much later in the book, retains her sanity and endeavours to help those she encounters in the early days of the “No Go Zone”. This device works to a point and we are led to believe that Theresa may be the central protagonist and, indeed, the book ends from her point-of-view. Comparing with The Walking Dead, she is Wake’s Rick Grimes.
However, once the madness settles and the bodies are literally piled up, we get to know the other survivors better as they form their community and sort out their present survival and plans for rescuing. For much of the first half of the book, I struggled to separate these characters’ personalities and I’m not sure if that is because of the writing or my reading. I’m certain Knox has provided the necessary information about each one, but I would often get lost trying to picture how Bub was different from Warren or how to distinguish Belle from Holly.
Still, I was mostly OK with this, intrigued by the mysterious, mute man in black who wanders around the place, resisting any attempts to integrate him into the fold. Things felt a bit sluggish until the storyline of Sam and William began to dominate. Without giving too much away, Sam is a brilliant character, literally multi-layered in her personality. Her story becomes integral to the plot and the fate of Kahukura’s remaining residents.
The other reason I found the second half of the book more engrossing was because of a development in my personal circumstances. About that time, I was invited to act as a panellist in next year’s inaugural Ruapehu Writers Festival, speaking alongside Elizabeth Knox herself. In addition to my enthusiasm at being invited to join one of New Zealand’s celebrated authors (most notably for her novel, The Vintner’s Luck), I also began to read the book with different eyes, curious as to why the festival’s organisers thought we might make a good team for their topic. As the festival’s programme has been developed, our panel’s topic has revolved around darkness in small towns and so it was with this in mind that I read the second half of Wake, becoming even more interested in the darkness found in Kahukura – and not just the obvious darkness brought about by the Monster creating the madness, the mayhem and the No Go Zone.
I began to see the darkness in the individuals and recognise this was the strength in Knox’s writing in Wake. One thing I’ve learned from watching The Walking Dead is that the only thing more deadly and frightening than the zombies in a zombie apocalypse are the other humans. But, unlike the television series or films like the Mad Max franchise where most of the dangerous humans are other bands of survivors who crave resources and will stop at nothing to get them, the characters in Wake have no interaction with others outside their community. The real dangers lie within and, in fact, most of their demise can be traced to the behaviour of those surviving alongside them. During their containment, all the positive elements of human nature continue: love, shared meals, tending to illnesses with great affection, sacrifices of time and energy for the greater good; but so too do the negative aspects: jealousy, sloth, deception, theft, domestic violence, murder.
It’s a good theme and one I enjoy exploring in my own writing. It’s a theme that can answer the question, “What can horror texts tell us about ourselves and our world?” In Wake, Knox tells plenty and shows us plenty. I look forward to hearing more from her at the festival in March.