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The Grimmelings Launch Speech by Elizabeth Knox

Thank you very much to Elizabeth Knox, one of the very best writers I know, for this thoughtful and meaningful speech at the Wellington launch of The Grimmelings at Unity Books, February 2024

A missing child, a lonely place. Ella, our protagonist, who is blessed and burdened by a distracted and stressed mother, a terminally ill grandmother, a worryingly unworldly younger sister, a struggling family business relying on clients too many of whom are Karens, and as for the main workers, the horses – it’s as if Ella’s mother has employed shirking, sidestepping, desperate for coddling family members. The Grimmelings starts in the thick of the everyday life of its story. The kind of everyday life that has detailed material particularity, that doesn’t simply set up an everyday which we can all agree on. There’s no shorthand, there’s nothing received. The book’s ordinary world and its supernatural are made fresh specially for this book. As in a Margaret Mahy, the everyday is what makes everything else matter.

The fantastic in this novel is magnificent and insidious – magnificent like the great black horse who turns up at on the shore of a central South Island lake to flirt with and menace both people and horses.

It slowly raised its head, staring, its muzzle dripping. Ella froze. It was almost too perfect, like a painting of an idea of a horse, rather than something real. She held her breath. There was no sound; even the undersong had died away, with no birds or distant sheep calling, no susurration of the tussock and shrubs. The horse tossed its head, sending droplets of water through the air, then it picked up its feet and splashed leisurely through the shallows to stand on the stony beach. The keld was as smooth as steel in the lake beyond.

Magnificent—the uncanny here—and insidious. As insidious as the sulky boy who also turns up, to flatter Ella and demand her attention – gradually showing his hand, his teeth and his hooves, because he means to divide her attention. So much so that, for the desperately suspenseful parts of the book, Ella’s thoughts are often not where they should be, with her family, and everything they have to lose and have already lost.

In the interests of not just making a kind of trailer of the dramatic set pieces (there are many) of chills and thrills (there are many of those too) and generally being spoilerish, instead I’ll just say this: this novel is the right kind of eerie and scary for young and older readers. There are places in it where I felt the hair standing up on the back of my neck. It is masterful with its atmosphere and suspense – the two must-haves of scary books. And with its understanding of myths, especially how they move from place to place and learn to bake their traditional bread with local ingredients.

But back to the thickness of the everyday. I can see Margaret Mahy in The Grimmelings, but I also know that Rachael is a childhood, and returning reader, of a strand of British fiction for young people. Books of the 1950s to 1980s. Books by Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and the like.

These were books, like The Grimmelings, in which adults aren’t just the ‘wah wah wah’ offscreen of Charlie Brown’s parents and the Peanuts movies. They’re people with jobs, and their children live with them and their jobs. The horse trekking business in this book isn’t just a setting; it’s a huge part of the texture and thingyness of the world, and of the stakes of the story. It’s all wonderfully brought to life by someone who loves horses. I’m also tempted to think that Rachel’s having been the director a Writers Festival has helped her with the drama and humour she’s found in these sly, temperamental, recalcitrant four-legged people.

So, jobs are real, money is real. The weather isn’t just atmosphere – that fickle, changeable lake keeps reminding the characters of what has happened, and frightening them with what might happen next.

The Grimmelings is an immersive, persuasive book, faithful to life when it’s doing life, and sensitive to myth, legend, horror story. As a reading experience it brought back to me that sense of magic that had all of us over a certain age as children hopefully opening wardrobes, and hopefully walking between anything that looked even remotely like standing stones, from holes in coastal rocks to tunnels in toetoe thickets. It is a book that is balanced in tone, tender enough, tough enough. I think people are going to love reading to their kids. And then have trouble not sneaking ahead and having to pretend to their kids the next night that they didn’t read on, and they don’t know, and that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the boy who won’t take off his hat.

Congratulations Rachael, I take off my hat to you. I hope I’ve managed not to be too spoilerish, I think everyone should go off and buy this book to find out what happens, and even more than that to relish how it happens, how it is laid out – enchanting, alive, real and urgent.

Elizabeth Knox