REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1998

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 2 Feb 2010

Judging by the polarity of the reviews on this novel, either you love it or you hate it. Fortunately for me, I was in the “love” camp. More than love – I adore this book. I’ve never read another quite like it.

I want to start out by saying that it is possibly best to come to it with no expectations (so if you think the premise sounds interesting, I recommend you go and read it before reading any reviews). I got a copy from the library with no synopsis whatsoever, so I went into it almost completely blind: all I knew was that it was about this guy and an angel who fall in love.

But Luck is so, so much more than that. So much more.

From Amazon.com:

The year is 1808, the place Burgundy, France. Among the lush vines of his family’s vineyard, Jodeau, 18 years old and frustrated in love, is about to come face to face with a celestial being. But this is no sentimental “Touched by an Angel” seraph; as imagined by Elizabeth Knox in her wildly evocative and original novel, Xas is equipped with a glorious pair of wings (“pure sinew and bone under a cushion of feathers”) and an appetite for earthly pleasures–wine, books, gardening, conversation, and, eventually, carnal love.

The fateful meeting between man and angel occurs on June 27. After an evening during which Sobran spills all his troubles and Xas gently advises him, the angel promises to return on the same night next year to toast Sobran’s marriage. Thus begins a friendship that will last for 55 years, spanning marriages, wars, births, deaths, and even the vast distances between heaven, earth, and hell. In addition to the wonderfully flawed Sobran and his mysterious angel, Knox brilliantly limns secondary characters who are deeply sympathetic–from Sobran’s unstable wife, Celeste, and his troubled brother, Leon, to his dear friend and confidante, the Baroness Aurora. Love, murder, madness, and a singular theology that would make a believer out of the most hardened atheist all add up, in The Vintner’s Luck, to a novel that will break your heart yet leave you wishing for more.

You all know by now that I am such an avowed atheist, and I will tell you straight that this book made religion so beautiful to me I was almost tempted to convert. For example:

“If you destroyed it, it would go to Heaven.”

“So is Heaven full of laundry lists and lewd books? The sorts of things people burn.”

“Destroyed originals go to Heaven. You can find a copy of anything copied in Hell. Heaven is full of the membranes of lost manuscripts. They are like the skin a snake casts when it grows, transparent, in the shape of a snake and printed with airy scales. But these are indestructible and lovely, like a gold leaf…”

The Vintner’s Luck, p.153

More than just the description of Heaven and Hell (what book-lover wouldn’t be tempted by the idea that all manuscripts go to heaven?), however, the novel itself was right up my alley.

To begin with, much of it reminded me of Plato’s Theory of Forms. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, essentially, Plato believed that on some other plane there exist perfect, non-material abstract copies of everything on Earth that are more real than the things we see around us. The way it was explained to me is that the Form of something is like its essence; a tree on Earth, for example, is less real than a tree in the world of Forms because it is only a reflection or echo of that perfect essence. You’re probably familiar with the allegorical Plato’s Cave, where a group of people are chained in a cave and come to believe that the shadows they see on the wall in front of them are the real things – well, basically the Theory of Forms states that what we see are those shadows, and that Forms are the things that make those shadows, the perfect tree and so on.

Basically, this concept is woven throughout the book. As you can see in the example above, Knox’s theology suggests that that Heaven is that world of Forms, and that “What God makes are copies and distillations. A soul is a distilled human. Earth and purgatory are distilleries.” (p.238). Later in the novel, Knox implies that Xas himself is an imperfect copy of Christ, created in advance by God to see what would happen if he (Christ) didn’t do his duty. The tragedy of this divine duplication, which Knox drives agonizingly home in the end of the novel, is that “in His world it is as though there are no particular things – or the particularity of each thing depends upon another” (p.239). Thus when a person dies, their soul is ‘distilled,’ and they are no longer themselves (the paradox of perfection is that it is inherently flawed because it lacks flaws and can therefore never be perfect), meaning that when Sobran dies, even though Xas could theoretically meet “him” in Heaven, he will never truly meet the “wonderfully flawed” Sobran again.

Naturally, the rich theological development was the highlight of the book for me. But I must also praise the prose and characterisation; the scenes were vividly rendered, the love stories were compelling and I felt like I knew the characters well by the end of the book. The way the wine was woven throughout as an extended metaphor was wonderful to see as well. It has a somewhat unique storyline, insofar as each chapter encompasses a year, so that at first it seems – mm, how can I put it? You find yourself floundering for the first few chapters because the usual sense of slow progression isn’t there. The novel goes over a lifetime, and the miraculous thing is, it really feels like it. You watch Sobran grow and change. New people come into his life; he has children; they have children. He grows. Although the novel is generally told from Sobran’s perspective (limited third person), at the end you realize that you the reader have more in common with Xas because you, too, are ‘immortal’ in the sense that you have watched Sobran’s entire life pass by.

It was heartbreaking and enthralling and is definitely (if it doesn’t sound too melodramatic) one of my Favourite Books of All Time. I was astonished (and a little proud, I confess) to find out that it was actually written by a New Zealander. There is a movie of it out which I will hopefully be able to get a copy of in the near future, and I will probably review that here too for the Books and Movies Challenge. It also qualifies for the GLBT and Year of the Historical Challenge as well. I’m glad, because in my opinion, the more people who are made aware of the existence of this wonderful book the better.

My favourite quote:

Xas sighed. “But I don’t want to talk about God. Why do I? Sometimes I feel God is all over me like a pollen and I go about pollinating things with God.”

Sobran opened his eyes and Xas smiled at him. Soban 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.

The Vintner’s Luck, p.100

Best read of the year so far. Definitely a modern classic!

RATING:

CymLowell

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  1. read the angel`s cut i just finished it and 4some reason ppl prefer the vintner`s luck i loved the second one better.

      • black sheep
      • March 27th, 2010

      I’ve been a bit reluctant to read Angel’s Cut, to be honest, because sequels have a way of being not as good as the original novel, but I’m definitely going to read it eventually. I just picked up another of her books, though – Daylight. Have you read that one?

  2. well angel`s cut is different from the vintner`s luck but for me i felt that Xas was my long lost fictional twin!, give it a shot. its agreat book yet its difficult to recommend…:) and no i havent read daylight i live in egypt and these r the only two books of ms knox that i found. i used to love meg cabot too but i grew out of her! by the way your country is beautiful i would love to see it when i have the money!

      • black sheep
      • March 28th, 2010

      I just looked up a synopsis of it, and it does sound good. Xas in Hollywood in 1929? Now there’s a concept! I have a rather large pile of “To Read” books at the moment, but I think Angel’s Cut just moved up the list.

      Wow, you’re from Egypt? What’s it like there? I imagine it’s pretty different from NZ. It’s a shame you can’t find any more of Knox’s books, though. From the reviews, Daylight sounds like it will be a pretty good read, although I’m not much of a vampire novel person in general.

  3. oh i dont know about you but one of my fav. parts in vintner`s was in one of xas`s letters when he told him he`d come like the cat sobran loved as a kid.
    he`d come out of the blue and jump on the bed…

      • black sheep
      • March 28th, 2010

      Yeah, that was a lovely image! I have trouble finding a favourite part, though – I enjoyed the whole thing so much. I keep telling people, “You have to read this!” I think they’re getting a bit sick of me…

  4. yay!! i`m glad i was able to move that book up on ur list its a new favorite for me and ppl r going to shoot me soon too i keep on saying ” theres this author called elizabeth knox…” so yeah!

    i`m a die hard anne rice fan so if i see daylight i`ll buy it but i hope its not more like twilight..

    well, egypt is very different from nz. it has its ups and downs but sadly it is now plagued with extremes all in the name of this far from being related to God or any religion. most ppl would have a heartattack at the sight of the books i read others will be eager to discuss similar books/ideas. i have a bit of a hard time cuz i am a black sheep as well( nice name 4 a blog by the way)

    one last thing, i plan to post a blog about Xas so can i link ur review of the vintner`s luck?

    have fun in whatever ur doing!

      • black sheep
      • March 31st, 2010

      I’ll be reading Daylight at some point in April & posting a review here, so I should be able to let you know if it’s anything like Twilight (I’ll be rather disappointed if it is!). You could possibly try Better World Books, though, if you ever wanted to buy a copy. They sell books fairly cheap and the proceeds go towards world literacy.

      I’d be happy for you to post a link to my review! I’ll be interested to read your post about Xas, too; I just finished listening to an audiobook that kept reminding me of him (namely because Knox’s version of angels were so much better than the ones in that book, I have to say).

      Thanks for reading – it’s been fun chatting with you 🙂

  5. thx for the green light. im not planning anything fantastic but the few ppl who
    read my blog should know about him. he is as vivid as blake`s angels!

    looking forward to ur review and sorry for turning this into a chat room. i simply couldnt resist!

      • black sheep
      • April 4th, 2010

      No worries, I’m always happy to discuss books with people (particularly that one, lol).

  6. I tweeted this review. Thanks for linking up to the party!

    -CYM

      • Black Sheep
      • May 20th, 2010

      Thanks for the tweet! Great idea 😉

    • Lee
    • January 8th, 2011

    I cant remember when I first read this book, it was so long ago. I’ve cornered all my favourite pages, but every time I pick it up to read the best bits I end up going through the whole novel again! I’ve never come across another book that has been able to affect me as much as The Vintner’s Luck, its people and places are so stunning and riveting and the last sentence “I put myself between you and gravity. Impossible.” just hits you and leaves you breathless.

    I am yet to read the sequel “The Angel’s Cut”, but after reading your review on it I think I’ll buy it. I also think I’ll go through your other reviews, see if I can get me some prime bedtime-reading material 🙂

      • Black Sheep
      • January 9th, 2011

      I did exactly the same thing when I first read it; when I finished the whole book was bristling with dog-ears! I was lucky enough to meet the author last year and got my copy autographed. Favourite. Possession. Ever. I hope you enjoy “The Angel’s Cut” — I’ve actually shifted to http://www.inside-story.co.nz/ now if you want to read more reviews, at least aside from the ones archived here. I just finished watching an old film from 1927 called “Wings” which put me in mind of Angel’s Cut a great deal, so you might enjoy that once you’ve read the book. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  1. March 1st, 2010
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