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)

An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker