Friday, December 20, 2013

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

 Reviewed by Tania Roxborogh

Set in a slightly alternate 1959 New Zealand where there are recognisable events (a polio epidemic, a world war) and peoples (politicians, Pacifica, university students and miners), sixteen year old Canny (Akanesi) Mochrie is made to accompany her step-brother Sholto and his girlfriend on a research trip. As he is trying to record the truth about a mining disaster from thirty years ago, Canny quickly learns that the 'Extra' she has seen her entire life is an ability shared by the strange Zarene family in the valley they visit.

It is also in this valley that Canny discovers Ghislain Zarene who is trapped in his physical seventeen year old self by a hidden house with its powerful 'renew, restore, repair' spell.  In him, Canny finds a kindred spirit and each use the other to try to change their circumstances - although Canny's are more altruistic, driven by the desire to help her best friend, Marli, trapped in an iron lung in Castlereagh Hospital.

The slip into the use and believability of 'magic' is seamless and entirely convincing, especially as, through Canny's exceptional mathematical mind, the spells are read like logical equations and patterns.

The writing quotable in that, I found myself committing the sin of marking my copy so that I could easily find exquisite phrases and passages from the clear beauty of evocating place 'Last summer seemed perfect now, and sealed away, with everything that belonged to it - the smell of wet bodies on hot concrete, a steamy scent seasoned by dust; the sight of Marli's rat-tailed hair, her gleaming back; the smell of the sun-struck butter in the apple pastries sold at the Westbourne kiosk; and the taste of lemon ice. Last summer was preserved like an everlasting daisy in a glass paperweight. Or perhaps like Marli's body in that steel box' to nailing the frustration experienced by many of a gifted and misunderstood teenager: I know what I'm like. Don't think you're telling me something that hasn't been impressed on me - forcefully- by teachers, and snotty boys, and nasty girls, and even my own mother. I have a great talent with limited usefulness, and it 'unbecoming'.

David Hill and Kate de Goldie had spoken enthusiastically of Mortal Fire on National Radio so I expected I would fall under the spell of Knox's writing as I had done with Dream Quake and Dream Hunter. I had to work hard for the privilege of reading this novel and, with a bit of end of school year tired brain, I was not happy about it. Still, as de Goldie noted, one can have absolutely confidence in Elizabeth Knox: in her skill as a story-teller and as a word smith. But, there were times where I felt 'lost', the descriptions too complex for me to follow or the explanations too esoteric for me to understand.

I learned by the end, that was the point to some extent: Canny's 'Extra', her mathematical ability, her 'stand apartness' comes out of the world of the story to affect the reader as well; like her step-brother, Sholto, we are often left unsure and uncertain what the hell just happened.

Mortal Fire challenged and stretched me as a reader and though I didn't always rush to pick up the book to continue reading, I was rewarded for my perseverance. My slightly quirky but clever students will love this novel, of that I am certain.

About the reviewer:
Tania Roxborogh  is a Dunedin-based author of over 25 books, including Third Degree, Twenty Minute Shakespeare, and Fat Like Me and the recently completed The Banquo's Son Trilogy. She also teaches English at a Dunedin high school.

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