Confessions of Another Common Reader

Elizabeth Knox – The Vintner’s Luck


Since loving Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal earlier this year (and interviewing her for Belletrista, which was one of the high points of the year for me), I’ve been making an effort to get to know more New Zealand writers. Ellie recommended Elizabeth Knox, some of whose work is published in the UK rather than requiring ludicrous shipping charges on top of NZ’s already-high book prices. I’ve been looking out for The Vintner’s Luck for a while as a result, and recently managed to swap my definitely-not-wanted copy of The Angel’s Game (ugh) for it on ReadItSwapIt.

This book was not what I expected at all – although I find it difficult to articulate what, exactly, I was expecting. It begins as much more of a historical novel than I anticipated, but ends up further towards the fantastic than I’d thought would be the case. It tells the story of a young vintner, Sobran, who meets the angel Xas in his vineyard one midsummer evening in 1808 – and then continues to meet him annually (at first, although the relationship changes over the years) over the course of his life.

The novel is divided into very short, essentially self-contained sections, one for each meeting. Short sections made it a very easy book to read in either short chunks or all in one go, because it seemed to start afresh so often, with the arrival of a new year. The characters are reacquainting themselves after a year’s separation with each new section, and the sense of story arc reflected the gaps in their personal chronology very accurately.

The Vintner’s Luck is at its heart a book about loss, lack and loneliness: Sobran’s marriage is difficult; his childhood friend dies very early on in the Napoleonic wars; his patroness Aurora nurses an unrequited passion for him; the angel is not all he seems at first meeting, and has dark struggles of his own to contend with, amongst many other troubled and difficult relationships depicted in the story. Yet this is something I only really noticed with hindsight, reading back through my notes. While I was reading, I found Xas and Sobran so profoundly irritating that it got in the way of my appreciation and understanding. There’s something about the way their relationship is described that lays bare the total egotism and self-absorption which lies at the heart of intense love affairs, and can so effectively alienate those that are outside the magic circle.

Guardedly recommended for those who like their reading a little weird: Knox does write beautifully, and as long as you’re able (unlike me – and this does seem to be becoming a bit of a recurring failure) to project beyond the characters, there is a lot in this to intrigue and delight.

posted under Book stuff, Read in 2009

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