Book Review: Wake, by Elizabeth Knox

Wake is available from Friday 1 November.

As I am still in the first few months of my job, I feel very cv_wakespecial whenever a publisher sends in something completely different to review. I saw Wake, by Elizabeth Knox, with the fantastic cover by Dylan Horrocks, and I immediately claimed it as my own. Knox has long been one of my favourite authors, and no matter the genre, her imagination and story-telling flair make her books truly special.

Wake was no exception. While I prefer my post-apocalyptic fiction to open after the gory stuff, once I had opened and closed it a few times, my brain reeling from the grim scenes of a pseudo-apocalypse, this book had me captivated. The story opens as a horrific event unfolds in the fictional Marlborough town of Kahukura, where all the residents suddenly go mad. Mad in a murderous, definite way.

I was intrigued by the nature of the monster – perverting not the private, but the public selves of the dead, taking them to the extreme as they seek conduits for their insanity. One of our survivors, a film-maker, loses his wife in the initial madness to a mad shopkeeper, who shoves money into her mouth until she chokes. There is also a memorable scene of a postie posting himself through a letterbox, among other gruesome occurrences.

Through the madness, we are introduced to several of the survivors, all bar one of whom survived by being outside the zone of madness at the time it began. The survivors include a cop, a truckie, a nurse, a caregiver from a rest home, a teenager, a lawyer, a conservation worker, an OAP, and a fisherman. Caregiver at the old people’s home, Sam was the sole survivor of the initial madness, and as we read on we start to understand what is different about her, and what part she may have to play in releasing the survivors from their unenviable situation.

The world Knox constructs is hyper-real, dealing with the day to day life of what being a survivor of an event such as this means. The survivors quickly realise that not only are they the only ones alive, they are unable to leave the town. Not only this, but the police officer entreats them to act as their best selves, to ensure no blame is attributed to them as they clean up the mess the madness has left behind. The cracks soon start to show, as an invisible monster seeks chinks in their psychological armour.

The shifting perspectives and insights into the main cast of characters’ minds are fascinating. Their differing responses to the atrocities are something that the reader can identify themselves with, and makes for an interesting philosophical query – how would you behave in these circumstances? How long would it take you to crack, invisible monster or no?

Many novels in this genre focus on the loss of things – Knox puts this aside and focuses on the loss of certainty, while the survivors deal compassionately with the dead. There is very little concern with food for themselves – they quickly establish a garden – though protecting the kakapo on the hill becomes challenging.

I encourage fans of Knox, and of psychological horror fiction generally, to pick Wake up. While not by any means an easy book to read at times, it will hook you and keep you until the very end. Brilliant.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

by Elizabeth Knox
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864737700