Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Memory and Misdirection in Mortal Fire

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Memory and Misdirection in Mortal Fire

Article excerpt

When Akanesi Mochrie, the heroine of Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire, goes exploring on a road trip through a fictional version of New Zealand, she finds herself riveted by a sublime landscape, a rock formation made of limestone that makes travellers breathe in with wonder. It is a natural phenomenon that resembles Gothic architecture, stacked as the rocks are like blocks of masonry, with turrets and columns like a castle.1 Akanesi, known as Canny, is not unusual as a Gothic heroine in being unable to turn her gaze away from a sublime landscape, the sort of view Emily St Aubert might have paused to gaze on with awe on her travels through the narrative of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.2 While the landscapes of Mortal Fire, like the landscapes of Knox's earlier Dreamhunter novels set in the same fictional version of New Zealand, are specifically New Zealand landscapes in their geography, flora and fauna, their Gothic effects draw on a tradition dating back to eighteenth century England now being rapidly and constantly reinvented in a Global context. Canny herself, who is unusually alert to when she is being manipulated, realises that her interest in the rock formation is the result of a misdirection spell, claiming her attention the way Shakespeare's sonnets claim attention not with new arguments but through the repeated demonstration of one simple idea over and over, promising 'This will one day be your castle, your refuge in some moment of lonely pain.'3 This is the first of several misdirection spells that Canny will encounter in this novel, all working to direct her attention away from the actual Gothic mystery of the novel, a boy trapped out of time. This essay follows Canny's refusal to remain transfixed by a Gothic landscape, to look at Elizabeth Knox's Young Adult novels in the context of contemporary cultural concerns. While the critical attention that has been paid to the relation between landscape, colonial history, modernity and nation in these novels has offered illuminating insights,4 it has also obscured the very Global anxieties played out in this New Zealand setting.

The Gothic as a genre has moved, in general, from a fascination with awe-inspiring landscapes and uncanny architecture, towards a more direct exploration of the uncanny architecture of the human psyche. As Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow put it, 'a fresh vein of gothic ore' was opened by the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, with whose work 'the gothic turns inward'.5 But this focus on the psyche can itself operate as a kind of misdirection spell. The argument this essay puts forth is that the Gothic as a genre, certainly as a YA genre, operates by defining diffuse cultural anxieties in terms of issues of identity and self-possession. This allows the uncanny, unsettling precisely because we cannot account for the dread it gives rise to, to be managed by a canniness that, unlike the uncanny, is a property not of a space or a situation but a person, the hero or heroine of the narrative. This essay will look at how this process of misdirection is played out in a number of teen fictions that I read as reflecting contemporary anxieties about how memory is constructed, shared and possessed in the age of digital technologies. I look first at two relatively direct representations of memory as potentially uncanny, in Cassandra Clare's bestselling City of Bones and in the popular television series Vampire Diaries.6 Reading the more complicated narratives of Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter duet and Mortal Fire in the context of these popular international hits, as well as some illuminating international experimental texts, the more oblique reflection of these same concerns can be more readily recognised than when the novels are read only in a local context, and with the landscape foregrounded, as so often in New Zealand Gothic criticism, as the most important Gothic trope. Mortal Fire, furthermore, offers a solution, of sorts, to the anxieties about memory found across the range of texts I look at. …

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