(Contains mild spoilers)
I have read myself into a stupour. Fast indulgent addictive novel reading that I would do as a kid where a part of me knew I should stop because I would end up feeling odd and bad-tempered and a part of me knew I should keep going forever. When I read fast enough, everyday linear time recedes and I fall into the chronology of the book, appearing and disappearing when scenes change. I want to go there so I read faster and faster. Like that scene in Calvin and Hobbes where they think perhaps if their go-cart goes fast enough they'll time-warp. When I finish this kind of reading I experience a kind of jet lag, a slight nausea because my point of focus has been for so long 40 cm in front of me, and I have been moving through time differently. I have been breathing different air.
I am here in my stupour because I have been reading Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire. So good I willed myself to slow down and savour it, knowing there is no reading of a book like the first reading, but I couldn't. The book itself spins time beyond the usual condensing and expanding that happens in novels so the sense of otherworldliness was more profound than usual. I was more fully submerged and emerged now I feel more bewildered.
Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the mythical republic of Southland I was struck with how good Knox was on place. I'm a South Islander and could have cried for her descriptions of the landscape. I have always thought if I had a large house and money I would fill it with carpet the colour of burnt South Island summer grass and scattered with sets of drawers the exact shape and the same mismatching shades as beehives. Nothing else. Vast space is so essential to it all. I ache for the places described in this book, places of sheep and bees, where roads steam after rain, where slopes come alive with rabbits and where mountains are patched with snow.
There are internal as well as external riches. I love books with women who are good with numbers, a relationship that perhaps stems from reading Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, where a daughter of a famous literary man, longs for nothing more than a quiet room to do her calculations. She is a sane and interesting counterweight to the romantic hopes for her of those pilgrimaging to her father's house.
Meanwhile, my elder daughter is re-reading all Lauren Child's Ruby Redfort books in anticipation of the release of the fourth adventure about this 13 year old genius code cracker. Another girl with a flair for figures. Maggie and her best friend are obsessed with RR. I'm not surprised, at nine, the notion that you can be smart, brave, fixated on adventure and female is worth clinging to with all your life.
I love too Catherine in Pip Adam's I'm Working on a Building. Both Catherine, and Knox's Akanesi (or more usually Canny) defy the contemporary and 1950s expectations that the primary role of girls, no matter how smart, is to be Good with People. The reprimands both receive for social failures are also shallowly disguised reprimands of their respective gifts. An unsmiling intellectual attentiveness in a boy may incite respect or even awe, but in these females, to at least some of the people they move among, it's a problem. Both characters experience cleverness as an intense personal pleasure in measurements and numbers and curiosity. Both receive and obey instructions to obscure their cleverness.
Mortal Fire contains magic and magical people, but it is the sort of magic that throws powerful flames to illuminate the muggle. Knox blurs Canny's mathematical gifts with her magical gifts. In describing the dual influences of the mortal and the magic, Canny says of herself
"I might understand the Zarene Alphabet because I'm a math genius but it answers me because the Found One is my father."
But as well as a saturation in magic there's a burning respect for intellect and a determination that we can and should live fully. A geologist is described
"He'd had his own powerful magic – the ordinary magic that extraordinarily interested people always have."
Mortal Fire's fantastic world throws a constant stream of reminders to me about the possibilities of my real world. Even if I didn’t know Knox’s affection for her these gifts would have reminded me intensely of Margaret Mahy. As in The Changeover, the protagonist in Mortal Fire is undergoing both a mortal and a magical transformation. And the transformations are inseverable. The inhalation of one change becomes the exhalation of the other.
When I first read The Changeover as a young teenager I never anticipated my own transformation from girl to witch, a transformation that the main character Laura undergoes, but I was ravenous for the message I received from the book, that my inevitable changeover from girl to woman could hold its own sort of marvel. I was at 14, in no outward way a success, but The Changeover gave me some private hope. I find similar inspiration in Canny who is clever and true. She manages to trick herself and time to become the person she should be. Writing this I think about how both Laura and Canny undergo a common rite of passage but manage to command it and make it their own. They both pull in substance and elements from themselves and the spaces around them. It's exhilarating to watch.
"She got up, and he took an involuntary staggering step backward. It was as if she had turned into a cascasde, a waterfall that flowed upward, or a big bright Founders Day firework. She looked exactly the same as she had a moment before, tall, shapely, dark, very good-looking but that was just her outside. Just her clay. He had handed her the old artwork, and she caught fire."
Canny herself understands and articulates her strength, which is risky. Even in mythical Southland to be sure of oneself and the strength one holds is a glorious breaking of a taboo.
“Getting up the hill would have been easy this time, except they've killed the pigs and the paths are overgrown. But the spells all gave up the ghost when I got near them. It wasn't violent. It was just like - 'Okay, Boss over to you now.'"
She's allowed, I crow to myself. She's allowed to be good at something and know it. And even more thrilling she allowed herself.
I love how dense Mortal Fire is. How long. How mysterious and full of codes. I like how this imagined story is full of other stories, legends, and true stories and, in turn, full of its own imagined stories conjured from nothing but for particular and premeditated purposes. I like how I don't know who is good and who is bad. I love how everything including Canny happens in two or three ways at once. The story becomes like a piece of paper folded in half and half again and again so new things are always lining up with old things.
I love that I was sent to places to observe things I did not understand, and that are not explained: an art work made of chicken wire and smelling of apples, the discordant ages of cousins, swarms of furry bees, a broken fall from a window, the appearance of two girls when there should only be one. How the unexplaining becomes a prompt for the reader to perform her own sort of magic. That you can only reach the understanding, the wonderful unlocking, the changeover at the end if you have been imaginative and curious and brave. As if you have answered Akanesi's mother call to “be brave", to be “braver than you are". The requirements made of the reader another tribute to the extraordinary.
(C) Copyright 2012, Mrs Loolupants, All Rights Reserved.