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The Absolute Book

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The Absolute Book

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Author: Elizabeth Knox
Publisher: Michael Joseph, LTD, 2021
Penguin Books, 2021
Viking, 2021
Victoria University Press, 2019

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Fairytale Fantasy
Magical Realism
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Taryn Cornick believes that the past - her sister's violent death, and her own ill-conceived revenge - is behind her, and she can get on with her life. She has written a successful book about the things that threaten libraries: insects, damp, light, fire, carelessness and uncaring... but not all of the attention it brings her is good.

A policeman, Jacob Berger, questions her about a cold case. Then there are questions about a fire in the library at her grandparents' house and an ancient scroll box known as the Firestarter, as well as threatening phone calls and a mysterious illness. Finally a shadowy young man named Shift appears, forcing Taryn and Jacob toward a reckoning felt in more than one world.



A Book with a Light in Its Long Perspective

When Taryn Cornick's sister was killed, she was carrying a book. People don't usually take books when out on a run, but Beatrice must have planned to stop, perhaps at the Pale Lady, where she was often seen tucked in a corner, reading, a pencil behind her ear.

The book in the bag still strapped to Beatrice's body when Timothy Webber bundled her into the boot of his car was the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.

The Cornick girls loved libraries, most of all the one at Princes Gate, which belonged to their grandfather, James Northover. Beatrice was seventeen and Taryn thirteen when their grandfather died. The family had to give up the debt-encumbered house-though Grandma Ruth stayed on in the gatehouse while she continued at her vet's practice. It was Grandma Ruth whom Beatrice was visiting when Webber found her.

Beatrice and Taryn's parents were separated. Basil Cornick was in New Zealand, playing the bluff fellow in a fantasy epic. Addy Cornick had been struggling with illness and was dispiriting company. Taryn would spend some of her holidays with her mother, then stay with friends. She never went near Princes Gate, because she couldn't cope with the changes. A farm conglomerate had taken over the estate. The new owners left the last of the wetlands intact, and the plantation forest with its kernel, a copse of ancient oaks. But the stone walls were dismantled to make long fields with nothing to impede the big harvesting machines-not walls, or drainage ditches, or the hawthorn hedges the foxes had followed.

The library had already gone, broken up before the sale. James Northover's books passed into the hands of the owners of antiquarian bookshops, except a few long-coveted items that went to his collector friends, perhaps including the ancient scroll box known as 'The Firestarter', because it was said to have survived no fewer than five fires in famous libraries.

So, the book bumping against Beatrice's shoulder blades as she took her last steps was one of those set in old museums and libraries. A book with a light in its long perspective, like the light of a grail. A book with scholarly heroes and hidden treasure.

Beatrice was running in her baggy sweats and bouncing backpack. It was autumn, and there was a light mist. The road between St Cynog's Cross and the village of Princes Gate Magna was thickly covered in fallen leaves, its surface amber but for two black streaks where the leaves had been chewed up and tossed aside by the tyres of passing cars. The road was quiet. Beatrice wasn't wearing headphones. She moved off onto the verge when she heard the car. The mist began to sparkle, and the reflectors on Beatrice's shoes flashed as the headlights caught them.

Whenever a restless night summoned her sister-her grey sweats and swinging ponytail-Taryn never found herself on that road. She was always in the car. In the driver's seat. She was the murderer, Timothy Webber. Taryn thought this might have been because she had spent so much time wondering why Webber had done it. Wondering how anyone does a thing like that.

The trial was held a year after Beatrice died. Taryn attended and became familiar with every detail of what happened-or, at least, what was known.

Webber's car hadn't clipped Beatrice because she wasn't far enough off the road. The police photographs showed a curved tyre track in the black mud. They showed how far he had swerved to catch her. There were no skid marks, because he'd braked already, reducing speed not to pass safely but to hit Beatrice hard enough, he hoped, to subdue her. His car cracked Beatrice's pelvis, and a roadside oak her skull. He stopped, got out, and scooped Beatrice up from where she lay in the lap of some tree roots. He put her in his boot.

Webber's lawyers let him take the stand, perhaps hoping his fecklessness would convince the jury that his actions lacked malice. He told the kind of feeble story kids concoct when they're caught out. He said he put Ms Cornick in his trunk to take her to hospital. But-the prosecution asked-wouldn't most people place an injured person in the back seat, or not move her at all and wait to flag down the next car?

Webber said he'd been too afraid to wait for someone to come along. It was a quiet road. He wasn't carrying a phone. It would probably have all gone better for him, he said, if he'd just driven off and had to face a charge of hit-and-run instead of this one. 'But I couldn't do that.' He screwed up his mouth in an expression of apology. 'Why I put her in my trunk rather than my back seat must have been because she'd soiled herself and was a bit of a mess.'

The jury moaned in anger.

Timothy Webber had been charged with manslaughter, not murder, because, the prosecutor explained to Beatrice's family, it was very difficult to prove intent. The police didn't want to risk him getting off altogether. Webber wasn't a bad character on paper. He had a job. He was an honest and reliable worker. He had no criminal record. He had friends and family. He hadn't been equipped for an abduction, wasn't carrying rope or duct tape. He hadn't lined his boot with plastic. He made no attempt to conceal anything, leaving Beatrice's thrown shoe where it lay, on the road, pointing back the way she'd come. He ran her down, but it was difficult to prove conclusively that it wasn't an accident. He may have bundled her into his boot and driven off, but in the end, all he had done was take her another two miles in the direction he'd been going, before performing a U-turn to drive to his sister's house. His sister called an ambulance. She said to the paramedics, then to the police, 'Tim just isn't very bright.'

Beatrice was dead when the ambulance arrived.

Taryn wanted to know what it had been like for her sister, locked in the dark of Webber's car boot. After the trial, a medical intern friend took a copy of the coroner's report to his colleague and arranged a meeting so the neurologist could tell Taryn how it might have been.

'It's unlikely your sister regained consciousness after the impact,' said the neurologist. 'She had a skull fracture, compression fractures in two cervical vertebrae, and the crucial thing, a brain stem injury. It was the swelling in your sister's brain stem that killed her-through uncontrollable blood pressure and disruptions to the normal rhythms of her heart. If you're wondering whether she suffered, she almost certainly knew nothing from the moment the car ran into her.' The neurologist's look said it all-how he respected Taryn's need to know. How this was all he could tell her. How he knew it could never be enough.

What he said helped Taryn believe what the jury had believed-that Webber wasn't a killer with a plan. He hadn't stalked her sister, and he wasn't prepared. He'd only nurtured a fantasy, then surrendered to an impulse. He pulled the wheel to the left. He picked Beatrice up. But she'd soiled herself and wasn't what he had wanted-a woman thrown down, stunned and helpless. It all went wrong for Webber. He hadn't felt what he'd hoped to feel, or gotten to do what he'd dreamed of doing, and he couldn't cope with any of it. And, because he didn't follow through and rape the woman he'd injured and abducted, maybe that was why he was able to stubbornly insist on his innocence. He hadn't meant to hurt Beatrice and was indignant that anyone would suggest he had. He just ran into her, then panicked. 'I was upset,' he said-almost as if he expected the court to kiss him better.

Webber was convicted of the charge of manslaughter and sentenced to six years. Five with good behaviour.

I'll be twenty-five then, Taryn thought. She hoped five years would be long enough for her to move on-as people put it, not seeming to understand how she was always on the move, even in her dreams, driving along the amber road as the mist began to sparkle.

As it was it took most of that time for Taryn even to learn to hide her rage. She wanted to keep her friends-not that they were much use to her now, but she understood that they might be one day. In time she'd feel human again, and part of some civil world.

To starve her rage, Taryn stopped talking about Beatrice, not just about what had happened-everything. There were stories she would tell about her childhood where she and her mother and father, grandmother and grandfather would be there, in the room of the story, with a ghostly absence, the now unmentionable Beatrice. Taryn couldn't separate her sister from her death, from the mark on the oak at the fringe of the forest. In Taryn's memory, her sister was a tender wound, Beatrice's whole life stained with the blood she had shed inside her own head. Taryn was angry-burned and pitted by anger like acid. Other things came with the anger: fearlessness, recklessness, chilliness, insolence.

When Taryn met her husband, Alan Palfreyman, she wasn't after a man of any sort, let alone a rich one. She only wanted something to eat, a glass of wine, a comfortable place to sit. She'd been caught in Frankfurt Airport by a cancelled flight on a budget airline. She'd had a holiday in Greece, on a beach she went to only at dusk, because the sun was fierce and her skin very fair. She was on her way home-sea salt still powdering her faintly mauve-shaded white skin; salt in her hair too, so that it was curling and almost black in its thicknesses. Taryn was superficially tired and very hungry, so she staked out the first-class lounges and shamelessly followed one man, a self-contained individual whose passing glance had registered not exactly interest but passive admiration, as if she were a fine watch and he had enough watches. Taryn followed him up the escalator, and when he was showing his membership card to the woman at the front desk of a hushed and scented lounge, and that woman was saying, 'Good afternoon, Mr Palfreyman,' Taryn gently slipped her arm through his and said, 'Mr Palfreyman and guest.'

Alan looked at her in surprise but consented. 'And guest.' And they were through, arm in arm.

Taryn was twenty-three when she married, the same age Beatrice had been when she died. Webber had three years of his sentence left to run-if he was serving the full sentence. Taryn's mother had gone. Addy Cornick had been battling breast cancer for years and was in remission when Beatrice was killed. Shortly before Webber's trial Taryn's mother had one of her twice yearly check-ups. Taryn went with her mother for the follow-up appointment. When Addy Cornick's oncologist told her she was still in remission she wept, not with relief, but bitterly, like someone who has had the worst possible news. She wiped her eyes and shrank in her chair, saying to herself, over and over, 'Do I have to keep doing this?' Meaning, 'Must I go on living?' Then, once the trial was over, Addy lost ground. She gave up. She seemed to be in a hurry to leave the world before her daughter's killer returned to it.

For much of that period Taryn's father was in New Zealand. Basil Cornick had a role in what he invariably referred to as 'a juicy fantasy franchise'. It made him a lot of money, though the lonely interactions with imaginary friends and foes in front of a green screen almost robbed him of his lifelong joy in acting. Taryn's father returned for her wedding. He gave her away. He also gave a speech and got the guests to raise their glasses to Beatrice: 'My elder girl, who was tragically taken from us by violence, four years ago.'

Taryn carefully avoided looking at her husband. He knew she'd had a sister, and that Beatrice was dead. But she'd only told him that Bea was hit by a car. Perhaps, when her father was making his overly informative toast, she should have met Alan's eyes so he'd at least see her wondering what he might be thinking. Taryn had, after all, wanted to share her life. To at least have a roost, as if she were a solitary ocean-going bird looking for somewhere solid to set down, no matter how bare and exposed it might be.

On her wedding night Alan was still a little under the shadow of the loneliness he'd felt as he sat, his face stiff with shock, hearing his bride's rather off-putting actor father outline the appalling story of her sister's murder. The speech had been so strange, somewhere between sentimental and perfunctory. Sitting with his bride on a splendid hotel bed, that loneliness wasn't a thing Alan could recall in its horrible purity. He refused it, because he loved Taryn, the mysterious woman with wounds so deep she hid them from him. He hadn't yet begun to think, Who am I to her that she hides a thing like that from me? Alan Palfreyman thought too well of himself for that.

Once they were finally alone, Alan took Taryn's face between his hands and looked into her eyes. 'You're so sad, Taryn, and haunted, and out of step with others.'

Even Taryn could see this was true. She was always studying the world, not rapt or curious, but patient and dutiful, as if the world was something she'd paid good money to see. She was studying it now too-in the shape of Alan's tender, troubled face. She was listening to the whisper of his smooth palm on the skin of her jaw, as he gazed at her and said, 'Who are you, Taryn?'

Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Knox


The Absolute Book

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The Absolute Book

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