By Elizabeth Knox
VUP, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Christine Linnell

FOR ME, reading New Zealand literature is as much a therapy for culture shock as anything else. I moved here from America two years ago, and since then I’ve been looking for local writers – particularly women writers – who can help me figure out what I’ve signed up for. Last winter’s project, predictably, was Katherine Mansfield. This summer it was Elizabeth Knox.

Knox’s latest book, The Love School, was an interesting place to start. It’s a collection of essays, talks, and other non-fictional writing that spans twenty years of her life and career. Reading the book is like having a good long rummage through her notebooks, letters, and snapshots, discovering the memories and experiences that go into novels like After Z-Hour and Dreamhunter. There’s a lot of things to explore here – not just for long-time fans of her work, but for anyone with an interest in writing and New Zealand perspectives.

One of the major appeals of the book is the way Knox explores her own voice: why it sounds the way it does, and what lies behind it. For one thing, her work embraces what I’ve begun to identify as Kiwi qualities – friendliness, self-deprecating humour, and frank curiosity. She can be thought-provoking while telling a funny story about going to the gym, or show empathy and compassion even as she’s describing someone at their worst behaviour. She also has a vivid memory, with a knack for illuminating small but important moments as they slip past.

“Any Kiwi telling a story,” she explains, “realises that there will be numerous places where the story touches on not only shared experience, but on private knowledge.” And in her essays as well as her novels, drawing on this experience and knowledge is one of her greatest strengths. From family road trips to Golden Bay in “When We Stopped” to the dilapidated Brooklyn flat of her early twenties in “Reuben Avenue”, she chooses images and moods that local people will connect with immediately. Some of my favourite selections focus on her memories of Wellington when she was close to my age, working office jobs so she could save money to write. On the other hand, I found her detailed account of the 1981 Test Day protests to be suspenseful and shocking, a vision of my adopted hometown gripped by prejudice and violence.

Things get particularly intriguing when Knox turns her insight to the wider world. For instance, she describes her travels in America several times, and I’m delighted by her perspective on the commercial, right-wing Christian culture that shaped my own childhood, captured perfectly in a few choice phrases – a “shabbily magnificent” hotel lobby, or a stretch of forest seen from a train window as “a barcode of biblical proportions.”

But the most engrossing aspect of her writing is her ability to tap into an imagination that is uniquely her own, and The Love School explores this in detail. In “Origins, Authority, and Imaginary Games”, Knox recalls the elaborate storytelling game she invented with her sisters and friends, with hundreds of characters, timelines, even alternate universes, and explains how this laid the groundwork for her use of plot and characterisation. “My History with Wings” gives us a look at the ideas behind her creation of the angel Xas in The Vintner’s Luck, and a cross-section of her influences in general – an intriguing maze of graveyard statues, Renaissance paintings, William Blake, and The X-Men.

Throughout her essays, there’s often a strong feeling that her complex fantasy worlds are simmering just below the surface. “Afraid” is one instance, in which a walk through the back streets of Venice leads to a surreal conversation on religion. And the title essay opens the door completely, with her dreamlike response to the paintings of Séraphine Pick. It’s disturbing and fascinating, lurking in the back of my mind long after I finished reading it.

On the whole, The Love School is a satisfying exploration of Elizabeth Knox’s work, and an example of what drew me to New Zealand in the first place: the sense that Kiwis are, in her words, “usefully aware of our ignorance – which is everybody’s ignorance – and capable of surprise”.