The Dream Quake, by Elizabeth Knox

Moral dilemmas for any age

By James Urquhart
Sunday 18 February 2007 01:00

Elizabeth Knox's gripping adult novels are literary but dynamic, sensuous and inventive. She has a striking ability to evoke a potent sense of time and place far removed from her writing base in New Zealand. The Vintner's Luck, published in 1999 and quickly attracting an enthusiastic European audience, was set in 19th-century rural France and imagined the illicit potency of a peasant vintner's midsummer assignations with an angel. Black Oxen subsequently took readers through a mystic portal on the Scottish coast into a semi-medieval trading empire, and then to California in 2022 and a rumbustious Latin American guerrilla war. Billie's Kiss followed, seemingly an Edwardian mystery of industrial sabotage set on a Hebridean island, but flounced with complex echoes of Prospero's demesne in The Tempest. Linking all these diverse but vivid locales together was a gyring sense of another world interpenetrating with our own naturalistic universe.

Now Knox has turned her formidable talent towards an imaginary corner of her native New Zealand. Her last novel, The Rainbow Opera, turned up the fantasy dial and pitched a hidden landscape at a young adult readership. "The Place" is a massive, barren country that is contiguous with a small geographic area of "Southland". The Place was accidentally discovered when Tziga Hame suddenly disappeared whilst travelling through Southland's countryside. Only a select few Southlanders possess the ability to enter The Place. Of those, even fewer are capable of catching the dreams that exist there. These "Dreamhunters" enjoy celebrity status for bringing their harvested dreams out of the Place and transmitting them, through elaborate public sleeping auditoria such as the Rainbow Opera itself, for the benign enjoyment of a receptive public.

This may sound like pastoral make-believe, but an Orwellian edge of manipulative mass narcosis quickly emerges. Tziga Hame is reported dead in The Rainbow Opera. His prickly, determined daughter Laura, emerging as a powerful Dreamhunter in her own right, disbelieves the official story and begins to uncover some unpalatable truths that strike at the moral fabric of her society. Knox's new novel, The Dream Quake, follows Laura's quest to conclude "The Dreamhunter Duet" in a gripping, urgent pursuit that raises the pitch of its predecessor.

The Dreamhunters' hidden land is similar paranormal terrain to the marshy Scottish portal of Black Oxen, with equally unresolved metaphysics, but the lucid and sophisticated prose style that Knox uses for her adult novels is replaced here by a clarity of dialogue and a cracking narrative pace. This gives an immediacy to the throng of moral questions that crush into the inchoate sensibilities of adolescence. The result is a forceful tale that engages readers unwilling to savour purple prose, and a confrontation with moral dilemmas that begin in the turbulence of youth but extend well into adulthood. Laura labours with potent and conflicting issues of identity, loyalty, trust, duty, responsibility, honesty, independence, isolation, and integrity, whilst orienting her way through adventures which test her mettle in a classic coming-of-age story.

The nearest useful comparison to Knox's conceptual framework is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, which also explores social power and control in the context of other possible quantum universes. Pullman's Lyra makes a heroically persistent warrior perhaps because, at 11, she is still a child and not constrained by the angst and awareness of a proto-adolescent sophistication. Knox's prose may have sacrificed subtlety for pace (rightly so), but determined, mid-teenage Laura Hame still agonises over her decision- making in the face of hostile social forces, and her travails are in keeping with the stresses and strains of emergent maturity. The Dream Quake is taut with emotional tripwires and, without adding too much didactic freight, nourishes the uplifting idea that you can change your own fate by taking responsibility for your actions and choices - an idea that roots just as well in adolescent and adult sensibilities.

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