Friday, 17 November 2006

Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox

DREAMHUNTER Elizabeth Knox, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, Auckland New Zealand, 2005, 434 pages, paperback, NZ$24.99.
ISBN 07322 8193 8

Reading Elizabeth Knox’s award-winning The Vintner’s Luck was like experiencing a dream. Now she has written an even more atmospheric, but much more exciting, novel where the subject is dreams. And nightmares.

Dreamhunter is sumptuously presented with a magnificent cover photograph and handsome maps. Glance at the inside cover flap, however, and a mysterious pile of sand can be seen. Like everything else in this novel, the sand is rich in meaning and full of surprises.

In the Republic of Southland (which is an alternate version of Edwardian Nelson) dreaming has become a profitable industry. Recovering patients and wealthy connoisseurs alike are able to enjoy the benefits of dreams transmitted to them in their sleep by professional Dreamhunters. These Dreamhunters have special talents which allow them to enter the Place, a strange parched territory in another dimension, where they gather the dreams they will later present. Rose’s mother Grace, herself a Dreamhunter, warns, “Every dream is like the Place itself, vast and no place to wonder alone.” The fledgling cinema cannot compete with the broadcast dreams. After seeing her uncle’s jerky, black and white film, Rose declares, “Dreams have sound and sensations, colours and tastes. Films don’t.”

Years earlier, the very first Dreamhunter had entered the Place unawares and by accident, vanishing from a stagecoach that had crossed its boundary. He was Tziga Hame, whose “little and dark” daughter, Laura, and “white and gold and vivid” niece, Rose, are at the heart of this enthralling novel. At fifteen Laura qualifies as a Dreamhunter while Rose – to her surprise – fails. Both girls must face daunting challenges.

Around the dreaming industry, Knox has created a complex but convincing world of the luxurious dream palaces and the enterprises which support them. There is even a Dream Regulatory Body, headed by the enigmatic Cas Doran, who has found ways of twisting dreaming performances to help his political goals. (A delightful extract from a Dr Michael King’s 1904 History of Southland adds to the plausibility of Knox’s account.)

The Place is like a wrinkled map, “far bigger than its boundaries”, and the strange conditions there put enormous physical and mental stresses on the Dreamhunters. They become “thin, rangy and dry-skinned.” When Laura looks at her father’s tormented face, it is “like peering into a furnace.” Shortly afterwards Tziga vanishes in mysterious circumstances but not before warning Laura of his “dreadful dream”. Laura is deeply troubled when, on her first journey into the Place, she gathers a nightmare instead of a dream. Even more alarming events follow, and soon Laura and Rose are following a trail of deceit and corruption that threatens the very stability of the Republic. Laura’s terrifying discovery is made public - appropriately at a dream performance - with catastrophic results. This exciting conclusion does not end Laura’s story. A second volume, Dreamquake, will complete the duet next year.

With its rich descriptions and sharp characterisations, with its echoes of Katherine Mansfield and Philip Pullman, Dreamhunter is a superb crossover novel, equally appealing to teenage and adult readers.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on 9th July 2005

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