In an early scene in elizabeth Knox's novel The Vintner's Luck, 19th century Burgundy wine grower Sobran Jodeau shares a bottle of friand with an angel, who will return each midsummer for the rest of Sobran's life to advise him on matters of love, God and viticulture: "'A young wine,' the angel said. 'Reserve a bottle and we can drink it together when it's old.'"
Knox is a writer worth cellaring. With four novels and three novellas over the past 14 years, she has flirted with fame in her New Zealand homeland, traveling to France as the 1999 Katherine Mansfield Fellow and selling over 20,000 copies of The Vintner's Luck since its December 1998 release. But at 42, Knox is maturing into a sought-after literary export. Last week she brushed past Australia's reigning Miles Franklin Award-winners Thea Astley and Kim Scott to win the inaugural $A40,000 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize in Hobart.
Where previous New Zealand literary heroines such as Mansfield and Janet Frame journeyed to Europe to find themselves, Knox travels mostly in her imagination-and via the Internet (next month sees the launch of her website). For Vintner she never set foot in Burgundy; instead, she says, a fevered dream set the story in motion: "I was having a conversation with this being who was hidden in the shadows of the trees and the shadows were like wings, and the angel was telling me the story of this life-long friendship he had with a French vintner." Her forthcoming two novels leap from South America to the Outer Hebrides. In an age when authors sweat over research and authenticity, Knox's flights of fantasy are (to quote Vintner) "as invigorating as the air immediately over a wild sea."
It's an image that conjures up the Brontë sisters, whose literary games Knox and her two sisters emulated while growing up near Wellington. In one game, paper dolls "turned into people, and then we stopped using the dolls and just started telling stories," she recalls. Her unleashed imagination was honed by a creative writing course at Victoria University. Knox's early novels After Z-Hour (1987) and Treasure (1992) abounded with ghosts and faith healers, jumping through time. In serious British and American fiction, she says, "there's a politeness, a decorum." In New Zealand, "there's all that freedom and scope."
Knox shrugs off constraints of form as well as style: she recently delivered her latest manuscript to her English editor-and to Working Title, producers of Four Weddings and a Funeral. A romantic mystery set on a Scottish island in 1903, Kissack and Skilling "will sell more than Vintner, I know it will," says Knox. "It's irresistible."
If self-belief drives her career, wavering spiritual faith keeps her art agile. Raised an atheist by her late journalist father, "I think that human consciousness is the most marvelous thing and the world is a beautiful place that walks over us and goes on without us," says Knox. "I believe God doesn't exist but I feel that God does-it's a strange quandary."
Her work explores this quandary feelingly. Due for release in New Zealand in May, Black Oxen is set in South America and peopled with "aliens and sorcerers," she says. Its title is taken from Yeats: "The years like great black oxen tread the world,/ And God the herdsman goads them on behind,/ And I am broken by their passing feet." Vintner Sobran Jodeau, too, must trudge on-through the Napoleonic wars, the invention of the railway, the discoveries of Darwin. But measured by the beat of an angel's wing, his otherwise ordinary life becomes as precious as his vin de cru-and something worth savoring. Like Knox's unfurling career.