Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Cover of Wake, featuring an illustration of seven people of various genders and races lowering a long, wrapped bundle into a deep hole. Behind them, a blue truck holds several more wrapped bundles. A bungalow and a large hill are visible in the background.
It’s sudden. One minute, the citizens of Kahukura, a small community near the north coast of New Zealand’s South Island, are fine. The next, most of them are hell-bent on destroying their neighbours without the slightest thought for their own safety.

Fourteen people survive the experience unscathed and are subsequently trapped inside the town by a barrier that kills all technology and renders all living creatures inert. Robbed of a way to communicate with the outside world and with no idea what’s truly happened to them, this small group of survivors bands together to get each other through--provided the strain of all doesn’t tear them apart.

At first glance, WAKE seems like your standard zombie story. Violence becomes the norm in the blink of an eye, with transfer potential at the forefront of the reader’s mind as the survivors try to evade infected individuals. We’re led to believe this is Elizabeth Knox’s unique take on a story we’ve all heard before.

It’s not, of course. Knox rarely takes the expected route in any of her fiction, and WAKE is no exception. As soon as the violence dies down, it becomes clear the infected weren’t zombies. So what were they? Why were the survivors spared? And how are they meant to cope with any of it?

Knox invites the reader to process this horror alongside her characters. We know about as much as they do, and this situation is unlike anything we’ve dealt with before. It’s unexpected, it’s raw, and it requires a huge adjustment for reader and character alike.

Much of the narrative deals with the how of it all. How the characters cope; how they negotiate their ever-shifting relationships; how they attempt to communicate with the outside world; how they search for answers; how they organize themselves to ensure everyone has meaningful work and enough to eat; how they clean up the town in the wake of that awful, awful day.

Y’all know I love anything that deals with How Stuff Works, so I was as fascinated with the systems they put in place to deal with clean-up and day-to-day survival as I was with their efforts to puzzle out the whys and hows of their situation. Knox limns the mechanics of their existence in glorious detail, from the everyday fight to keep everyone mentally sound to the larger questions that plague them. Why did they survive when no one else did? How was the No-Go (the barrier that cuts them off from the outside world) put in place? Is there any way for them to escape this prison?

The answers emerge organically, at at exactly the point when the reader wants them most, and each discovery is a direct result of the characters’ efforts. Nothing comes for free. We learn all this because the characters have fought so very hard to learn it. It’s satisfying on every level, even as it unlocks new realms of terror.

I feel it’s important to mention that none of these realms of terror involve sexual violence. One expects such things from modern fiction with its ghastly fixation on “rape for realism’s sake,” but of course Knox eschews the expected route here and always. There’s a certain amount of physical violence, but for the most part the terror these people inflict on one another is psychological and largely ungendered.

Most of the time, these violent instances are also free of malice. Each of the characters tries to treat the others well, or as well as is possible given the limits of their own personalities. Their failure to do so springs not from a desire to hurt but from personal strain. Everyone is frantic to cope with what’s happened to them, and their internal rage often spills over simply because they’re unable to stay in their own heads a moment longer. It’s a fascinating, complex look at social interaction in the face of terrible hardship.

I’m reluctant to say too much about the characters as individuals because I’d like you to form your own opinions of them. I will say, though, that they’re a refreshingly diverse bunch. Not everyone is white, not everyone who assumes a leadership role is male, and not everyone is neurotypical (though the nature of one character’s neuroatypicality isn’t exactly what it seems on the surface). I came to feel for each of them, some to a greater extent than others, and was absolutely terrified they’d all die or become corrupted or something terrible like that.

WAKE is a horror novel, so you can maybe guess that fear wasn’t entirely unfounded.

Likewise, I’d rather not delve into the nature of the external horror that has trapped them in the town since it unfolds so beautifully, and since the mystery behind it all is much of the book’s appeal1. Suffice to say it’s unexpected and genre-defying. Knox roots WAKE not only in the wider SF and horror traditions but also in the very notion of history and repetition. It’s excellent stuff.

A few words on the title, before we trickle off. As is so often the case with Knox, the title has multiple meanings. Obviously, the survivors’ efforts can be seen as a wake for the people who died. The story also takes place in the wake of a massive wave of destruction. A variety of other interpretations snap into focus as the story unfolds. I shan’t go through all the possibilities; some of them count as strong spoilers.

I know it’s rather awful of me to bring the topic up and drop it so quickly, but I wanted to throw it out there because this is one of my favourite things about Knox’s work. Nothing ever means one, definite thing. It’s up to the reader to unpack each detail. Her work rewards the rereader as much as it does someone approaching the text for the first time.

Y’all want to be one of those first-time readers (assuming you haven’t taken the plunge already). WAKE is horror tinged with SF tinged with a magical flavour, plus a hefty dose of social science fiction. It’s an excellent pick for anyone who likes a little of everything in their fiction.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. That's especially true with a book like WAKE, which may not be widely available in North America yet. If you're in search of another way to read it, you can try:

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  1. At least for a first-time reader. On subsequent readings, I expect the characterization will prove even more fascinating than it did on this first journey through the text. Knox always gives her readers a ton to unpack.


  1. PROCESS DYSTOPIAAAAAA! Can I call it that? It doesn't sound like it's exactly a dystopia sort of book, but it sounds like it has the elements that make a process dystopia so awesome to me.

    1. Ooh, I love that term. Process dystopia. I'm going to use it all the time from now on.

      This one is maybe a bubble dystopia, if that's a thing? The ccharacters know the world is more or less business as usual outside the No Go, but they themselves are basically in a post apocalyptic scenario with no idea if it'll ever abate.