The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Books 2022, 8)

This was prompted by a Guardian article — listicle, you might say, since it’s basically a big list — of books for the summer (last summer): Summer reading: the 50 hottest new books everyone should read. I borrowed it from my local library. Kind of great that you can borrow ebooks from the library. Especially during lockdowns, when the buildings themselves were closed.

It is a magic realist novel set mostly in Britain and faerie; or the sidhe, as it’s called here. It starts with the story of the tragic death of the main character’s sister, when they were both in their late teens or early twenties. Was it murder? certainly the driver of the car that killed her was imprisoned.

The loss of her sister haunts Taryn’s life, predictably. But if there are hints that the death is somehow linked to the other mysteries that run through the book, then it is never satisfactorily resolved that there is or isn’t any connection.

That aside, we soon find ourselves — unexpectedly, for me at least — in another world. It seems that all the otherworlds exist: Munin and Huggin, Odin’s ravens, turn up. We hear that ‘The Great God of the Deserts’ went mad because his believers had too many different ideas of what he was like, so heaven is closed. A visit to purgatory is made.

Taryn finds out she is damned, because of an action she took — or didn’t take, a sin of omission — regarding her sister’s killer. And seems to accept this, and another evil at the heart of the Sidhe, without trying to understand it, without raging against it.

It’s good, but there are definite weaknesses. I found the action scenes very confusing. Some of the geographical descriptions, too. And it feels a bit… maybe unfocused is the word? Hard to say what exactly I mean by that, but I guess it’s that some things are hinted at when they should be explained. At least eventually.

There are a few oddities. It’s set mostly in Britain, but some Americanisms creep in where they wouldn’t. Can’t think of any specific examples, but it’s on the level of saying ‘highway’ instead of ‘motorway’. That kind of thing.

Well worth a look, though.


Xstabeth by David Keenan (Books 2020, 29)

Following on from number 27, then, we have David Keenan’s latest novel. Again we’re in a kind of magic-realist setting, without any obvious magic. In St Petersburg a young woman lives with her father, who is a failed or fading musician. The daughter – who is the viewpoint character – starts a relationship with her father’s friend, and gets pregnant. She keeps all of this from her father.

Her father, meanwhile, puts on a show at which he performs some seemingly-otherworldly music. He starts to believe that it was actually created by some sort of mystical entity called Xstabeth.

For reasons that escape me at the moment they go to St Andrews,1 where they get involved with a professional golfer. The ‘tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event’ that I referred to in the earlier note happens from this side too, but you’d only notice it if you’d read The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.

The novel is presented as if it were an academic work about a novel calle Xstabeth, by someone called ‘David Keenan,’ who killed himself by jumping from a tower in St Andrews. So there are cod-academic sections or extracts between the chapters.

It’s all very meta, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I totally understood it. The strangest thing about it, in some ways, is the use of punctuation. Almost the only punctuation used is the full stop. But that doesn’t just mean he’s avoided using commas and semicolons, and constructed appropriately short sentences. It reads as if he wrote it with conventional punctuation around dialogue and so on, and then replaced every other mark with the full stop.

For example, consider this:

This is singular. He said. This is music that cannot be repeated. This is music that can never be toured. This is music that can never be applauded. I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted Applause. Awkward applause. Uncomprehending applause. But still. Applause. What is the sound of one audience member clapping. I asked him. He laughed. Yes. He said. Yes. Yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music. He said.

A more conventional way to punctuate that and lay it out, might be:

‘This is singular,’ he said. ‘This is music that cannot be repeated; this is music that can never be toured; this is music that can never be applauded.’

I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted applause; awkward applause; uncomprehending applause; but still: applause.

‘What is the sound of one audience member clapping?’ I asked him.

He laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music,’ he said.

There are, of course, other ways you could present it. As an experimental way of presenting text, it’s interesting enough. I found it intruded, in that I constantly noticed it; but not so much as to be annoying. Though there were places where it was slightly confusing. I paid particular attention to it because we recently discussed ways to present dialogue on my course.


  1. Still needs an apostrophe. ↩︎


The Towers The Fields The Transmitters by David Keenan (Books 2020, 27)

Strange one, this. I read Keenan’s This is Memorial Device a couple of years ago, so when I saw a new one by him listed on my local bookshop’s ‘forthcoming’ page, I had a look.

That book was Xstabeth, and more on it in a few posts' time. It hadn’t yet been released at the time, but there was a special offer from the publishers: upload proof that you had preordered it (such as the receipt from your local bookshop) and you’d get a free novella-length ebook prequel: The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.1

So I did all that, and here we are.

I’ll note right away that, having read both, they seem to be connected only by location and one tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event.

In fact those terms apply throughout this book. It’s kind of a magical realism piece, set mostly in St Andrews.2 A businessman visits the town to audit the books of a military facility, and starts trying to find his missing daughter. Why does he think she might be in St Andrews? That is never explained. Nor does it need to be.

Time goes weird, with second-world-war bombers appearing in the skies. Or on the phone, at least.

The more I try to write about this, the more it feels like a hallucination I had a few weeks ago. Very strange. Worth reading.


  1. That title needs some commas, I can’t help but think. But that’s the way it’s given, so [sic], I guess. ↩︎

  2. Which town needs an apostrophe, it seems to me, but doesn’t have one according to Wikipedia, so [sic]) I guess. ↩︎