Krissy Kneen’s novels have often centred on bodies, how they morph and constrict, how they can offer transcendence or be prisons for the soul, how they merge into other shapes, beyond desire, beyond gender, beyond human. In her latest, Wintering, she continues these themes, leading to an isolated shack on the Tasmanian coast, a place where devils roam, men disappear and strange creatures are glimpsed in the twilight out of the corner of the eye.
Like Nordic noir, Kneen’s evocation of the chill of the landscape leaves you cold. Not in an abstracted sense, but shivering. She has the rare authorly skill of inhabiting the atmosphere of a place so completely that as a reader you embody it – you feel yourself in a boat fishing against icy winds, or in a house open to the elements, where lighting the fire is the key to survival. It’s a book that’s hard to shake off.
The central character, Jessica, is a tour guide for holidaymakers through caves she knows intimately. She’s also a science writer, trying to finish a PhD on glow-worms in the secret Winter Cave, “her tiny, miraculous larval galaxy”. As she looks up into the glowing points of light, she contemplates the universe, but her partner, Matthew, remains more of a mystery.
He’s the kind of man who puts flowers on her pillow and makes homemade bread and butter. He keeps the fire stoked and freezes comfort food. But he also plays chicken on the road at night, switching the headlights off as Jessica sits in the passenger seat. While she sleeps, he roams the boundaries of her world, checking for weak points, invading, wresting control.
Kneen has always been interested in crossing over boundaries in terms of literary style, making her one of the more exciting writers in Australian fiction. Wintering moves beyond a missing-person mystery, an outsider’s glimpse of a small town and a realist domestic drama, to another realm entirely, one of shapeshifting, confounding supernatural elements that revolve around and butt up against the evidential concerns of Jessica, frozen at its narrative core.
What Kneen manages to do, as does Atwood, or even Murakami, is make her narrative worlds, wherever they lead, seamless and seductive. Both playful and structurally sound, Wintering remains tense and taut throughout, with a strong sense of place, cool engagement and the ghostly traces of environmental and personal degradation. DD
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Krissy Kneen, Wintering ". Subscribe here.