Wintering, Krissy Kneen

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Look. I’m disappointed. Disappointed because Wintering is not An Uncertain Grace. Just bog standard Australian (ok Tasmanian) Gothic. Well done. But not my cup of tea.

I’ll leave it to Tasweigans to decide if non-Tasmanians should write Tasmanian Gothic. Now there’s a problematic sentence. I believe very strongly both that writers should be able to write and publish whatever they like, and that writers should not tell (‘appropriate’) other people’s stories – because it is often an assertion of power, ‘mansplaining’ for instance, and because we as readers may be entertained but we don’t learn much.

Kimbofo, a woman, has just posted a heartfelt review of Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South, “a luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s” in which the protagonist is a woman. Kim writes, “there’s no other (living) male writer that can write women as well as Tóibín, he really knows what makes us tick.” (Reading Matters here). How can I argue against that! And yet I do.

Sorry, I got carried away. Appropriation has been on my mind. Nearly all of you will assert that Krissy Kneen is perfectly entitled to explore Tasmania with her father, then write a fiction set there. She certainly gets the atmospherics ‘right’ (I haven’t been there, so what should I say? Her dense, mountainous temperate rainforest accords with what I know/have experienced).

In Wintering both the speculative and the erotic elements are ratcheted down compared with An Uncertain Grace. Wintering‘s thesis is fantasy rather than SF – in the European gothic, werewolf tradition. I don’t think, I hope she wasn’t, implying a connection with Aboriginal spirit stories.

The story is told in the third person entirely from the perspective of Jessica, a PhD student from the mainland who has settled down with a local guy her own age, a shift worker on a salmon farm, uneducated, but into difficult books, while she studies glow worms in a remote cave system and makes pin money as a tour guide in those caves open to the public.

Matthew, her guy, is controlling, and somewhere between rough and violent. In four years she has permitted him to stop her from meeting any locals in the town where he grew up, mistakes his control for love, makes excuses, all the usual stuff… This relationship is not convincing. Not just because it’s difficult to see what’s in it for Jessica, but because almost as soon as Matthew goes missing, she both mourns him and starts falling for his best mate (whom she has never met before).

Matthew fails to come home from work one night and his car is found abandoned on the road up to their isolated house. He has been filming his drive home, not with a dashcam but with his iphone propped on the dash, driving fast in the dark with his lights off, collides with a barely visible, naked man-sized shape. There is blood on the road but no sign of Matthew.

Jessica begins to venture into town, meets women, at least one of whom is clearly Matthew’s girlfriend, discovers that Matthew is the thirteenth man to go missing in this way. Matthew’s mate, William calls round to offer assistance, comfort. There is an intruder in Jessica’s house (Matthew’s parents’ beach cottage). An animal is strangely killed and abandoned deep in the caves.

The wives and partners of missing men meet. It’s a small town, they all know everything about everyone. One of them has obtained the video from Matthew’s phone (from the local policeman) –

Jessica … heard the hollow sound of wind through the speaker, watched as the women leaned forward, jostling for a better view of the tiny screen, a press of sallow flesh…

Darkness, light, darkness

Jessica suddenly felt guilty, as if it had been her in the car, risking the lives of wallabies and devils*. She pursed her lips. The headlights blaring back on high beam. The animal rearing, the bones glowing pale in the light or the stripes standing out against its dark side, the too-wide mouth.

The official search has found nothing. The women institute their own. At night. With guns.

The resolution comes slowly and with the right amount of tension.

 

Krissy Kneen, Wintering, Text, Melbourne, 2018


Tasmanian devil: Smallish carnivorous marsupial (here)

31 thoughts on “Wintering, Krissy Kneen

  1. I think it is problematic to have hard and fast rules about which stories can be told…
    I’ll give you an example, using a novel I’ve plotted, but probably will never write. To tell it, I need to set it in another state, and narrate it using five voices, one of which is a man.
    And then there’s the problem of my own identity. What am I? Am I Australian yet? Two weeks ago the Kiwis thought I was a Pom…

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  2. Oh Bill, aren’t you becoming a bit too politically correct? It feels like you are wanting to put writers into that very narrow “write what you know” box, allowing them very little room for imagination. Where do you draw the line? Do you say that a man who hasn’t been a father can’t write a protagonist who is a father? I certainly think we need to be careful about appropriating the stories of oppressed peoples but I think we should avoid quashing imagination as much as possible.

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  3. To start at the end, Behrouz Boochani is an aussie, you’re an aussie, even bloody Tony Abbott is (no I can’t say it). I worry about ‘another state’, can’t you just make it generic. I’ll let the guy (one out of 6) go. Let’s see what I answer Sue, I think she’s asking the same thing.

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    • Yes, let’s see how you answer me. I actually started my response at 5.30pm but then had to go out mid sentence, so didn’t complete it until I got back and saw that Lisa had replied similarly to me – though with a little different tack! The sisterhood is ganging up – haha!

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  4. I am in favour of political correctness, so the answer to the first part is Yes. And I think the answer to the second part is: if you want to be a serious writer, write what you know. If you want to write entertainments, write whatever you bloody like. Though yes even there, as you imply, there is a line (for decent people) and that is don’t appropriate the stories of people over whom you have power.

    Tasnanian Gothic is by definition an entertainment, so I probably chose the wrong location for my sermon (or diatribe). Sorry.

    I really liked An Uncertain Grace, which as SF wasn’t very demanding of characterization, and I was disappointed Kneen didn’t do so well here in a different, though related, genre. I know why she chose Tasmania but the trope she wished to extend was tired and not worth the effort.

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    • That’s exactly what it’s not, for me. It’s about me the reader, being given the opportunity to wear the writer’s shoes.

      I loved your review by the way. I can see that Toibin wanted to explore parallels between Ireland and Catalonia. I thought though I’d restrict riding my hobby horse to my space rather than inflict it on yours.

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      • Hehehe, fair enough, Bill. I don’t think I’m going to be able to talk you out of that 😉

        Thanks for nice comment about the review; think you’d like this book. Decided I need to read all of Toibin’s back catalogue now… I’ve read a handful over the years but this one has really cemented my love for his writing even further. I’ve only just discovered he has cancer, so am hoping he’s okay and that he’ll be around a lot longer to continue penning books for us to read.

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  5. I’m with you. I do not want to read books about fat women written by straight-sized women. I don’t want to read stories of Midwestern rural people by someone who didn’t live it (that’s why I included the picture of Bonnie Jo Campbell killing and plucking her is chicken in my review Once Upon a River). People who write out of their lane romanticize and pity groups they find “less than” themselves.

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    • Yay! I love being agreed with. I asked you a question about BJC because “romanticize and pity” is exactly what I worry about (including Orwell’s classic Down and Out in London and Paris)

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      • Well, writers who “romanticise and pity” are not empathetic I’d say. There are writers and writers.

        So, neither of you like historical fiction? (I don’t think you do Bill, but Melanie?) Should we only read history to put the past in the context of the present, to see how it might impact the present or teach us about the present? And, since they can’t second guess the future that they haven’t lived, should writers not write about the future either? My point, I guess is: Where do we draw the line? I draw it at where there is a power imbalance between creators’ backgrounds and their subjects – and that could include your straight-sized women writing about fat women, Melanie.

        All this said, I love women writers, and have supported them for decades, because they speak so closely to me. I turned to women writers in a big and determined way in the 1980s when more and more started being published through Virago et al (though of course I’d always loved Austen) because they *knew* my experience at a deep level. I get that. I just don’t like rules or judging writers, absolutely, by them.

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  6. Sue. I’ve written before that one of the interesting things about SF is how closely it reflects the writer’s present – the Cold War, the climate crisis etc. Much SF is a mixture of ideas and adventure, not literature. We have all enjoyed the recent wave of Australian women’s dystopian fiction because the writers have been able to stay close to home, and it is a bonus that at least some of it has been well written as well. I would never say to a writer ‘here is a rule’ but I will make clear the criteria by which I judge you.

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  7. I don’t have an issue with a man writing from a female perspective or vice versa, as long as they’re prepared to be told they’ve done a bad job if they have done a bad job! Is that having my appropriation cake and eating it to? 😀

    Jeffery Eugenides comes to mind because I read one of his highly praised novels recently (Middlesex) – there are many female characters in the book and not one is convincing. Honestly, nothing resonated, which is pretty disappointing when you plough through a 500 page ‘best seller’. But there are male authors who get women right and female authors who get men right – it’s not a deal breaker for me.

    Re: Wintering – good to hear your thoughts. I have only read An Uncertain Grace by Kneen (a book I still think about) but have Steeplechase in the TBR stack.

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  8. I’ve read Middlesex, but even reading a summary didn’t bring it back to me. If I was a woman I’d be more concerned about men appropriating women’s stories than you and Sue are. But I’m not, so my only concern is that it feels like a waste of time trying to learn about women from a man. I’ll give Kneen another try, she’s innovative and a good writer.

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    • I’m like Kate … I don’t care who writes women as long as it feels real to me. The women characters in EM Forster’s Howard’s End feel real to me, for example. I have no problems with that and would hate not to have read it. In fact, Forster writes a few main female characters doesn’t he?

      Interestingly – and I think I’m right here – Jane Austen doesn’t write any scenes where men are only with men. Her men are always seen with women. She had a lot of brothers, so knew men pretty well I think. The main reason is because her stories are about women and their challenges in her time, but it may also be because she wasn’t comfortable in reporting on men only conversations which, by definition, she would never have experienced. (If I’m wrong about this fact, there would be very few such scenes.)

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      • I really like Howard’s End. I’m sure you’re right about JA tho we’re used to seeing Darcy and Bingley walking, talking, visiting together from film. I’ve been on the road home since mid afternoon stewing about why and how anarchists have rules, but that will have to wait for another day.

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      • Oh that’s so funny Bill … I look forward to reading the results of your stewing one day!

        And yes, the filmmakers “do” Austen differently, partly of course to find ways of conveying things that Austen tells us about them.

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    • I’m not that concerned BUT I agree that it’s a bit of a waste of time trying to learn about women from a man (and vice versa)… So I’m not sure where that leaves me!

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