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Elizabeth Knox – The Vintner’s Luck

January 11, 2010

1. The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (1998)

Length: 284 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction

Started: 29 December 2009
Finished: 03 January 2010

Where did it come from? A Christmas gift from my parents (a year ago. Shame!)
Why do I have it? It had been on my wishlist for a long time, so I’ve got no recollection of how it got there.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2008.
Verdict? Keeper.

There are eons of
secrets between Heaven and
Hell… and one angel.

Summary: On a midsummer’s night in 1808, young Sobran Jodeau steals two bottles of his father’s newly-pressed wine and heads out to drink away his heartbreak in the moonlit vinyard. When he falls in his drunken state, an angel appears and catches him. The angel, Xas, makes Sobran promise to return to the hill on the same night in a year, saying that at that time they will toast Sobran’s marriage. Xas is right – Sobran does marry – and Sobran decides that Xas is his own guardian angel. As they continue to meet, once a year at midsummer, their friendship begins to grow, and while Sobran tells Xas about his life, he also slowly learns the truth about Xas. For Xas is actually a fallen angel, and his story will test Sobran’s strength, courage, and love, and will shake everything Sobran thought he knew about God, the earth, Heaven, and Hell.

Review: I’m finding it hard to summarize, or even discuss this book, because in so many ways it is unlike any other book that I’ve ever read. And, that simple fact – the unlikeness – is part of what makes it so beautiful and complete, given this book’s views on originals versus copies, comparisons and similarities.

It is not a easy book to get into, that’s for certain. It’s not exactly that it was difficult to read – although Knox’s writing is complex enough that it did require my full attention. Rather, it felt like the book kept me at arm’s distance for a long time. The structure of one short chapter for every year of Sobran’s life made it hard to really properly feel the passing of time, and the tight focus of the story on Sobran and Xas’s meetings, especially in the early chapters where both characters were still reserved, made it hard to find an emotional connection at first. But there is a well of emotion lingering under the surface, and while I never managed to feel particularly close to either of the main characters, this book still managed to pack a powerful punch.

Sobran opened his eyes and Xas smiled at him. Sobran said, “I did think that you talked about God to persuade me you weren’t evil. But I’ve decided that, for you, everything is somehow to the glory of God – whether you like it or not.”

“I feel that, yes. My imagination was first formed in God’s glory. But I think God didn’t make the world, so I think my feelings are mistaken.”

This was the heresy for which Xas was thrown out of Heaven. Sobran was happy it had finally appeared. It was like a clearing. Sobran could almost see this clearing – a silent, sunny, green space into which not a thing was falling, not even the call of a cuckoo. Xas thought the world was like this, an empty clearing into which God had wandered. (p. 118-9)

I think a lot of the beauty of of this book comes not from its characters or its story, but from the clarity and strength of its vision. Knox’s versions of Heaven and Hell are unlike any others I’ve seen, although they rival Anne Rice’s in their texture and scope. (I’m particularly enamored of the difference between Heaven’s and Hell’s libraries – the one containing only destroyed originals, and the other only things that were copied – and of the implications thereof.) Knox does a superb job of conveying the terror and the wonder of her religious landscapes, and of their representatives, and she’s equally adept at evoking sun-baked and moonswept Burgundian hillsides, and at blending a little of that terror and wonder into the mundane.

Yes, he did go into the earth to get to both Heaven and Hell, but no one could dig and find them. He couldn’t draw a map, with Heaven and Hell in hollow pockets under the surface of the earth – it wasn’t like that. Sobran should imagine that any map he knew he read folded – always folded – whole territories were hidden in the folds, and the coasts, rivers and mountain ranges of the known world crossed the edges of these pleats, crossed them as if the space in which they lay was complete, a whole cloth with no hidden folds. (p. 140)

So, while The Vintner’s Luck is not an easy book to describe, and it’s not an easy book to read, it was definitely worth my time, and is the sort of book that I can tell will stick in my head long after others have faded. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Although the tone’s fairly different, I think people who enjoyed Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil, or other similar “theological” fiction should definitely give The Vintner’s Luck a try. Not everyone is going to get along with Knox’s writing style, but for those who do, it’s a pretty unforgettable journey.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Care’s Online Book Club, Just Add Books, Stella Matutina
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly bottled wines to baptise the first real sorrow of his life.

Cover Thoughts: The angle and lighting on the statue is kind of strange, so it was initially a little hard to tell exactly how the angel’s body is positioned. I do love the wash of wine-red light coming in from the side, though.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 40: “It was cool in the cuverie and the fruit fermented slowly.” – French word for the building in which fermentation takes place.
  • p. 62: “Now Sobran relived the embrace and, while still remembering grief, he kept turning against the body he knew – knew how it felt – and using his hands as he hadn’t to touch the skin under his own tears, to touch the warm fingerstall of paradoxical navel, more anomalous than a human male’s nipples.” – a covering used to protect a finger.
  • p. 77: ““And we’ve been grafting to the three rows of gamay vines in Kalmann.”” – any of several related red grapes used for making red wines, especially Beaujolais.
  • p. 92: “At last the hidden man observed the rising sun light the angel’s black hair whitely, though Sobran recalled the vigil after Nicolette’s death, and how at that sunrise the sheen on the angel’s hair was robe the purple of wine.” – a tasting term which refers to a wine’s colour.
  • p. 115: “Sobran wondered how he had never noticed that this garment was both martial and lubricious.” – arousing or expressive of sexual desire; lustful; lecherous.
  • p. 119: “The mare had been ridden near a hidden petard.” – an explosive device formerly used in warfare to blow in a door or gate, form a breach in a wall, etc.
  • p. 135: “Aurora thought she could hear the canvas from where she stood; she saw it move and heard a gulp, like the sound made by a well-trained but eager dog in a hunter’s covey – waiting.” – a group, set, or company.
  • p. 146: “Sobran wound the handle on the well, hauled up a bucket and set it on the coping” – a finishing or protective course or cap to an exterior masonry wall or the like.
  • p. 160: “Beyond the glass he saw the gloss of snow and midnight, then his angel, holding on to architrave and sill with one hand and two tensed bare feet, his black hair whipped every which way like a tattered banner.” – a molded or decorated band framing a panel or an opening, esp. a rectangular one, as of a door or window.
  • p. 224: “Anne had departed two weeks back – her sister had puerperal fever after the birth of her third child.” – pertaining to or connected with childbirth.
17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 3:15 am

    Ooh, I loved Memnoch the Devil. Between you and Memory, I’m more than sold on this one.

    • January 14, 2010 10:44 am

      Nymeth – I think you’ll really enjoy it; it seems like it would be right up your alley.

  2. January 11, 2010 5:49 am

    I like this cover and I vaguely remember enjoying Memnoch the Devil but I’m not sure if I would like this book or not.

    • January 14, 2010 10:46 am

      Ladytink – It’s certainly not a book for everyone, but it’s also kind of a slow burn – I don’t think it’s the sort where you could read a few pages and get a sense whether or not you’d enjoy the whole book.

  3. January 11, 2010 8:07 am

    Goodness – how did I ever skip over all those words!? I just might have to dig up any notes I may have taken but reading through your defns here tells me I breezed right thru this book!

    • January 14, 2010 10:46 am

      Care – Well, quite a few of them are either defined in the text, or clear enough in context that not knowing the definition isn’t really a hang-up.

  4. January 11, 2010 8:42 am

    I have a feeling this book is too intellectual for me.

    • January 14, 2010 10:48 am

      bermudaonion – It’s probably too intellectual for me as well; I’m sure there are plenty of layers that I’m not getting. Still, I enjoyed the layers I was able to reach. :)

  5. January 12, 2010 6:12 pm

    Something weird: until I read your comments on the angel’s position, my mind saw the angel’s body twisted backwards like Michelangelo’s David, with the wing on the lefthand side of the cover as its head. Huh. (I’ve never actually seen this cover in person; only itty bitty images like the one you included in the post).

    • January 14, 2010 10:50 am

      Memory – I thought the wing was the head too, at first glance. I don’t know what sculpture it is, but from what I can tell, it is in kind of a weird position – on one knee, but bent at the waist sort of over the outside knee.

  6. January 12, 2010 9:59 pm

    Thanks for this! I put it on my list for the Horns & Halos Challenge, but for some reason I wasn’t too psyched about it. Now I actually really really am. I love books that explore issues of God and sin and like that.

    • January 14, 2010 10:52 am

      Jenny – I love books like that too, but I can’t figure out what to call them that doesn’t have some other connotation. I feel like “religious fiction” or “theological fiction” both imply a level of belief/faith of the reader (and the writer) that isn’t necessarily part of the group of books I’m thinking of.

  7. January 14, 2010 6:36 pm

    I have been hearing a lot about this book lately… Not sure if I want to read it but it looks interesting.

    • January 18, 2010 2:04 pm

      Kailana – This book has had a bit of a bloggy renaissance lately, hasn’t it? I wonder why that is?

      • agdhani permalink
        May 25, 2010 1:42 pm

        I’d guess because there’s a movie now…not sure if its released yet, or if it will ever be released in the U.S…
        I know that’s what has gotten me to order a copy. I’ve heard the ‘good stuff’ was left out of the film…that it focuses more on the ‘wine making and the marriage’ type thing…but I want to read the book before I see it…and I want to see it because French actor Gaspard Ulliel (young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising) is the angel…


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