Kim Hill discusses Elizabeth Knox’s latest young adult novel with Kate De Goldi.

The daughter of a Pacific Island mother with a formidable background is a maths genius, among many other things. But all her life she’s been aware of something she calls ‘extra’ — an otherness to things. This is described very well by Elizabeth Knox.¬†When Canny sets out on a trip with her stepbrother and his girlfriend, she finds herself drawn into enchanting Zarene Valley where the mysterious but dark seventeen-year-old Ghislain helps her to figure out her origins.

How does Mortal Fire relate to Elizabeth Knox’s two Dreamcatcher books?

This is set in a world similar to our own, but history has gone in slightly different directions. This is set in ‘Southland’, which is putatively New Zealand but also possibly attached to Australia. (Not necessarily physically but an antipodean entity.) The earlier books are set at an earlier point in history (around the Edwardian age). There is a special place set aside where people bring dreams to them. Now we’ve skipped ahead to 1959. (Elizabeth’s birth.)

Marvellous Aspects Of Mortal Fire

Knox’s work is described by the publisher as being ‘immaterial’, though Knox’s great facility is to lodge the reader in the material world. The style is no frills, though this is part of the point really. Some writers want each sentence to be a perfect entity. Others are looking at a broader canvas, using language in a more utilitarian way to tell the story. Knox probably falls into the latter camp, which suits the kind of stories she tells. She also spends a lot of time in this book setting up. But she nevertheless inspires confidence, so you do plough through the exposition. We will be taken somewhere meaningful.

Knox is a fantastically concrete writer, whether someone is manipulating bees (for magic) or it’s underground in a mine (so enthralling). The concrete writing lodges the reader in the here and now, including the problems of our modern world — big issues, particular things that have gone on in New Zealand, not least the Pike River Mining Disaster. In the story there is a secret entwined in that incident. This allows Knox to explore big issues such as power, (and in a different subplot) our inability to save people who are ill.

Knox is fantastic at ‘processes’, at describing how stuff is done.

There are many layers in Knox’s work. The magic of the material world adds to the layering. There will be probably be theses written about this author in future. There is so much to explore. There is complexity/nuancing/instability in her characterisation. No one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’: There are a whole lot of complex reasons to explain why people are as they are.

Knox is the preeminent heir to Margaret Mahy and Diana Wynne-Jones.

The book becomes page turning in the last two thirds of the book.

Names are always meaningful. (So ‘Canny’ is significant.) This technique is reminiscent of Catalogue Of The Universe (though not in any way derivative). Two characters come together and learn to love each other’s difficult parts. The place names of the alternate NZ are also really powerful. The names suggest New Zealand was settled earlier than it actually was.

The information in the book is belayed at a beautifully measured pace. The reader is almost expected to be mathematicians ourselves, putting the patterns together.

The earlier time of dreamhunting is mentioned. This book isn’t a sequel to Knox’s earlier ones, but simply exists in the same world.

What makes this a YA novel is that it involves a transformation, in which Canny discovers her full power. The story around her origins is so complex. This is a great YA novel. There are parts of YA that have been a little ‘used up’. It’s very difficult these days to be exciting with social realism. Kate De Goldi suspects that the only legitimate YA at the moment is speculative.

Into The River by Ted Dawe

Kim asks, What does this say about Ted Dawe’s Into The River? This is totally social realism, and very successful. But speculative fiction goes so well in YA stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that is being explored in social realism sometimes it just becomes melodramatic, unless it’s in the hands of a really good writer. But in a magical world, that same drama seems sort of persuasive.

Ted Dawe is an excellent writer. De Goldi can’t understand the furore around the content. Though explicit, it’s in context. The moral panic that has spurted out over Dawe’s book is in response to prizewinners. If a book doesn’t win a prize it can go more often under the radar. What about Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan? Why are more people not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks but it contains no sex. It seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex. Nevertheless, De Goldi urges people to red Ted Dawe’s book, because there’s an incredible sweetness about the main character. There’s no real message being promulgated in any way, but he holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.

Both Into the River and Mortal Fire achieve that.