BLACK OXEN by Elizabeth Knox
Kirkus Star


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Byzantine intrigue and melodramatic excess abound to an almost unprecedented degree in this fascinating, inordinately busy new novel from the New Zealand author (The Vintner’s Luck, 1999).

Brief summary won’t help much, but here goes. In 2022, medical therapist Carme Risk is herself undergoing “narrative therapy,” attempting to comprehend the mysterious figure of her father, an apparently ageless and possibly supernatural being known variously as Abra Cadaver, “Ido Idea,” and Walter Risk. An extended flashback takes us to Eden (doubtless in new Zealand), where a foundling who’s autistic, or a genius, or both (“something between feral child and street kid”) is adopted by bachelor loner Carlin Cadaver. The charismatic Abra fathers a daughter, whose later life is chronicled in reports of her therapy sessions and in scenes set (out of chronological order) in Eden, the fictional South American republic of Lequama, and a southern California campus. The restlessness and volatility of Knox’s characters find objective correlatives in the complex aftereffects of Lequama’s bloody revolution (especially as experienced by its Taoscal ethnic majority, as rebel forces rise to and falls from power), and in the tangled interrelations of a cast of nearly 50 important characters, including an ostensibly reformed prostitute and her rebellious daughter, a bisexual male military hero and an Amazonian woman officer, a martyred poet, a morose Newfoundland dog, and a desiccated billionaire who schemes to live forever. Reading this cheerfully overstuffed novel is rather like watching an insanely lavish “epic” film in which dozens of actors play vividly imagined eccentrics: the spectacle is rousing, but the brain-weary viewer despairs of connecting logically together everything that keeps flying past him. Nevertheless, clues are provided by Knox’s brilliantly chosen title (from Yeats’s line “The years like great black oxen tread the world . . . ”) and by subtly placed allusions to Patrick White’s utterly mad novel of hermaphroditism and psychic transference, The Twyborn Affair.

“Why are these people trying to teach the world about Taoscal magic?” The answers to this question, and many others, will be found by the diligent—and patient—reader, somewhere within the sprawling, infuriating pages of Black Oxen.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-11405-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2001


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