Reviewed by Paul Eberly
Book of Knives
by Lise Haines
Poisoned Pen Press
October 2022, Paperback, 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1728257310
An isolated and brooding woodland. A crumbling, ramshackle chateau, housing a dying patriarch. Dark family secrets and long-nurtured resentments, throbbing to break free. Also knives. Seriously, knives — lots and lots of them. Oh, and vulnerable children. Did I say vulnerable children? There’s a posse of those in the mix, too.
You might be excused for thinking this particular carton of tropes has languished in the back of the Frigidaire long past its freshness date. You might be excused, that is, if you haven’t read Lise Haines’ deliciously creepy Book of Knives. To enter this modern gothic is to enter a realm of deep and unmooring uncertainty, where the living may prey on the living and the dead — just possibly — might help or harm.
Recently widowed Nora, a documentary filmmaker, falls into an over-hasty, rebound marriage with Paul, a contractor and deceased husband Takeo’s best friend. In short order, she finds herself at Hidden Lake near the Canadian border, enjoined to help renovate the campground where Paul and his estranged brother Gabe spent their gloomy childhoods. The brothers’ parents, who live in the main house, are in failing health, and the camp, dilapidated and disused, must be refurbished for sale.
Also in this company — sister-in-law Salish and a muster of sons and daughters, ranging from teen cousins Leon, an aspiring musician, and the beautiful if morbid Jones to the über-winsome three-year-old Lily. Salish’s people were knife makers, and her precious canvas of heirloom cutlery holds for her a totemic importance.
When the knives begin inexplicably — indeed, it would seem, impossibly — to disappear, suspicions roister. Nora, this fractured family’s newest member, becomes a focus of particular distrust. Perhaps more significant, Paul’s and Gabe’s decades of suppressed animosity, born of their history in this place, soon batter their way into the open. Through all of this, there’s the question of the dead, namely a long-murdered maintenance worker and his camp-cook lover — is it they who manifest this novel’s creepier goings-on? And is Nora’s deceased husband Takeo always near at hand, protecting and supporting Nora as her living husband’s distance grows?
What I find particularly effective in this most recent of Haines’ offerings is her refusal to answer this question. Do the dead haunt the grounds around Hidden Lake or do they exist solely, though no less vitally, in the party’s hopes and fears? You, reader, are tasked to decide. But be forewarned — Brontë could have handled this no more subtly.
Haines’ language, ever vivid, is often surprising — “the heaven and hell of her husband” — and, at points in this gritty tale, near lyrical. As Nora enters into a waking dream of Takeo’s Kyoto funeral:
My dress fluttered against my legs in a sudden gust as if I were fully present. I looked at each face like this was a casting call for a documentary no one wanted to be in. The robes of the Shinto priest billowed as he went through songs of death. His hat was kept in place with a chin tie so it wouldn’t sail off and become a silk boat. Incense coiled against shafts of sunlight and a tall, white birch ached.
The verdict? As I type, the world outside my window has sunk into Autumn, the eeriest time of the year. Lise Haines’ Book of Knives provides a perfect complement to this unsettled season. Buy it at your local bookstore (best) or at bookshop.org, an online retailer that donates a portion of its profit to aid independent booksellers. But buy it, do. It is that good.
About the reviewer: Paul Eberly is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and has published in Agni Online, Post Road, Standards (including the five-year anthology of that journal), and Conceptions Southwest. He blogs about books at pauleberly.com.