“The logic of it was like something imposed from the outside. As if someone were overseeing what was happening.”
~~here be (a few) spoilers~~
Kahukura, a small coastal town in New Zealand, is suddenly overcome by a homicidal, suicidal mass insanity. Theresa Grey, a police officer and the first responder to the scene, witnesses a postman trying to stuff himself headfirst into a post box; a couple whom she initially believes to be kissing are actually gnawing each other’s lips off. A lorry crashes, and a mother walks herself and her pram into the burning pool of motor oil. Out of the madness walks a man–a sane one–carrying his wife. They’re visitors to the area; they only stopped in the town to go antiquing. His wife is dead, but he has survived. He and Theresa quickly discover that they can’t escape: the road out of town is blocked by a mysterious force field they nickname “the No-Go”. In short order, they find twelve other survivors. These range from a fisherman of Maori heritage, to a young biologist who works at the conservation center up the road, to a fifteen-year-old video game enthusiast, to an American lawyer in town for business. As they hole up in the town’s retirement home and try to figure out how to live in their strangely isolated new environment, the novel tracks the emotional progress of individuals, and the group as a whole, as they move through fear and hopelessness towards understanding what, precisely, they’re up against.
For a while I struggled to think what this book reminded me of. It was sort of like The Walking Dead (I imagined, having only ever seen trailers for the show), but the zombie horror only lasts for the first forty pages. It was sort of like Under the Dome, insofar as the survivors are trapped and there’s a clear supernatural tinge to their plight, but I was reaching for some other comparison to describe the sense of claustrophobia and the overriding impression that whatever caused the madness and trapped the survivors is basically inexplicable. This morning, I got it: it reminds me of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. The two novels share an interest in how emotion makes us vulnerable, in how we can be cracked like nuts by a merciless intelligence if it chooses to focus on our most venal, pettiest sins.
Fourteen characters is a lot of characterization to juggle, so of necessity Knox highlights some of her characters more than others. Warren, for instance, a drunk and drug addict in his mid-twenties, is basically a sketch, and Dan, a middle-aged truck driver with a family somewhere outside the No-Go, is forgotten for pages at a time (although he gets more focus near the end of the book). There’s a very odd relationship between Sam, a young woman who worked at the retirement home and seems to have learning disabilities, and William, the American lawyer who is, on occasion, physically violent towards her. The other survivors tut a bit over this, but no one tries to stop them or seems to lose any sleep over it. You could say, I suppose, that it’s an all-too-realistic portrayal of how communities, even very small and interdependent ones, turn a blind eye to things that don’t immediately concern them, but it’s not just that the characters don’t interrogate it; Knox doesn’t either, since it’s introduced and then more or less dropped. Likewise, the beginning of their ordeal sets up a tension between William and Theresa which we imagine is going to play itself out in a leadership struggle. Instead, the group hobbles on without an acknowledged leader, and at the end, after spending very little time inside Theresa’s head, we’re meant to believe that she’s fallen for William. It’s unfortunate, but revealing in another way: that the least convincing part of this supernatural horror novel should be (some of) the human emotions means that the supernatural horror part is very well executed indeed.
I should also add that other human emotions are very well drawn. Curtis, for instance, the antiquing tourist whose wife, Adele, is a victim of the madness, eventually retreats from the group altogether. His grief is such that it can’t be processed in company, which makes perfect sense (bereavement does that to you, it makes you irritated by things like the touch of a hand on your shoulder or even someone else’s voice.) Lacking community, however, he starts to slip into a kind of grief-fueled dementia–which makes him vulnerable to the force that holds the town in thrall. This, it turns out, is an actual entity, a multi-dimensional predator known as the Wake. It derives energy from plunging others into madness, and it orchestrates the madness by inverting everyday relationships, “even”, as one character notes, “fairly superficial social ones.” (Adele, for instance, choked when the antiques shop owner began forcing pound coins into her mouth, reversing the normal interaction between a customer and a shopkeeper. And remember the postman who’s posting himself when Theresa turns up in Kahukura?)
All of this is explained by Myr, a mysterious black-skinned, black-clothed man whom the survivors at first mistake for one of them. He doesn’t speak, though, and won’t come to live in the retirement home with the other survivors. His relevance, and his identity, are only revealed halfway through the book, when he briefly kidnaps Sam. It’s quite difficult to go into detail here for fear of Big Huge Spoilers, so I’ll say only that Knox integrates plot elements that could easily seem ridiculous in a surprisingly convincing manner, partly using historical precedent to back herself (you’ll see what I mean if you read the book) and partly by being as vague as she possibly can about Myr’s provenance and the Wake’s. Although the explanations are woo-woo, it’s all window dressing for an exploration of how people are their own worst enemies. That’s why the Wake feeds on people’s weaknesses: their jealousies, their fears, their secret or overt affections. It gives Knox the chance to draw a vicious cycle for us: put in a position where you have to defend your life, your positive traits quickly leach away in favour of survivalism…so how do you survive if that’s precisely what makes you vulnerable?
To be completely honest, though, it wasn’t so much the philosophy that kept me reading (although that was an enjoyable added bonus); it was the argh what the hell is going on I want to know I want to knooowwww factor. It wasn’t just about the Wake was going to do, either; Sam’s curiously blank, innocent personality is initially ascribed to her being mentally disabled, but in fact it’s due to something else, and much of the satisfaction I derived from the book was as a result of working out what that was. Usually such page-flippability is catalyzed by books written in a prose style at best pedestrian and at worst hideously awkward, so the fact that Knox can turn a sentence was a plus. I’m not entirely sure that she has a thesis, as such, although the book makes it seem as though she does; why else would you create that paradox surrounding emotion and human vulnerability? For me, it doesn’t come together in one coherent sweeping statement, but that isn’t necessarily a demerit; I loved just getting to know the characters, who are all desperately poignant in their own ways (especially fifteen-year-old Oscar, who plays Halo to cope with his worry and is passionately devoted to his family’s Siamese cat, Lucy). It kept me glued to the couch on a Sunday afternoon; what more can you ask for from a book?
Thanks very much to the kind folks at Corsair for the review copy. Wake was released in the UK on 3 March.