Books

Krissy Kneen
The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen: Travels with My Grandmother’s Ashes

Lotty Kneen of Queensland – aka Dragica Marusic of Slovenia, the stern and silent maker of papier-mâché dinosaurs, dragons and elves, the grandmother who raised Brisbane-based author Krissy Kneen – was “the fiercely beating heart of the family”, someone who saw “any sign of love as a marker of weakness”.

The author tells us this 50 pages into The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, a brave, ambitious, engrossing and compassionate book that is part memoir, part biography, part elegy, part fairytale, part travelogue. With the author’s smartphone snapshots spread through the text, it made me think of a more humorous W.  G. Sebald.

Kneen has written about her grandmother previously: in her 2008 memoir, Affection, and in her 2015 collection of poems, Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle. She interviewed her – or perhaps, more accurately, tried to interview her – for the 2002 ABC TV documentary The Truth about Dragonhall.

The poetry volume and this new book were the only ones written after the death of Kneen’s grandmother. Until then, the author was “careful what I said about my grandmother” and put only “safe and simple stories … onto the page”.

Kneen is still careful but no longer safe and simple. She starts with a sketch of a woman she has known all her life but does not know, the woman she calls “Mum”, even to her own mum, Wendy, whom she calls “Mother”. The author is visiting her ageing grandmother at Dragonhall, the Brothers Grimm-esque tourist attraction that no tourists attend “in the middle of nowhere in central Queensland”.

Lotty Kneen had lived there since she won the lottery, packed up her family, moved north and opened Dragonhall to display her papier-mâché models and tell gruesome fairytales to any tourists who strayed in. Her granddaughter, having been raised in the Western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, was almost 15 at the time of the move.

Kneen writes that her family had no real choice but to follow Lotty. Her father is a “spectre” in this account of her early life, though she came to know and love him later. Lotty disliked men. “We had no life of our own. She had ensured we had no friends, no community, no other family. All we had was her.”

And even then, they did not have her, not even as she lived her final days. “My grandmother, who raised me, refused to talk about her past.” Her “stiff-backed and tight-lipped” aunt who lived with Lotty knows more “but I am forbidden to tell this family story she guards so tightly”. The result of this secrecy? The family story “is an animal burrowing in my chest. A sad ball of fur and teeth, clawing to find its way out of me.”

Kneen asks at the start, “Where does this story begin?” It begins, for her and for us, when she decides to free that sad ball of fur and teeth. She disobeys her aunt, her mother and her dead grandmother and goes on a quest to find the real Lotty Kneen and, she hopes, the real Krissy Kneen. Her starting point is that “my grandmother’s silences speak to me of some secret trauma”. While the title sounds a bit like a Sergio Leone western, there are no disinterments and reburials – at least not literally.

Lotty’s first burial is in Queensland. The author and her partner, Anthony, tip Lotty’s ashes into a grave. However, she keeps some in a jar and it is this powdery grey remnant of her grandmother, full of its own power, that will accompany her and Anthony to the other burial sites: in Slovenia, where Lotty was born in 1916, and in Egypt, where she travelled alone as a child, for reasons not fully explained.

She lived with the Aleksandrinke, the Alexandria-based Slovene women who worked as nannies, wet nurses and in other areas of domestic service.

As an adult, with two children of her own, Lotty left in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser started the decolonisation of Egypt. Foreigners lost the right to work and Jews were arrested. This leads the author down other paths, one of which is dark, timely and sadly timeless. Lotty made it to England and later to Australia.

This charting of the relocation of women is an important part of the book. “I can feel myself beginning to belong,” Kneen says. “I open my notebook and write: I am the granddaughter of an Aleksandrinke. I am part of something bigger than myself.”

This search for her self is where the self-effacing Kneen is at her saddest and funniest. Here she can tell the truth as she knows it, unlike with her grandmother, where, for all her research, including genetic tests, she admits she must “weave imagination into truth”. When her grandmother did speak it was a “scant pile of lies and myths”. As an aside, the chapter on the genetic tests is hilarious. When the first result comes in the author can hear her “grandmother laughing”.

Kneen writes candidly about her anxiety, her panic attacks, her suicidal thoughts and her obesity. “I blame everything on obesity: my tiredness, my depression, my various viruses and flus, my lack of literary awards, every bout of writer’s block. In my head, every bad thing that happens to me is due to my weight.”

The author, who writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry, adds to this list her compulsion to hoard. There’s no doubt this is a bowerbird of a book. It includes a poem and even recipes for traditional Slovene cuisine.

Yet it’s the collecting, the accumulation, that matters. The Lotty Kneen we come to know is a different woman to the one we meet at the start. Whether she would welcome her granddaughter’s decision to leave her “fixed roots” and explore the “errant branches” of her family tree is something we cannot know. “ … memory is not a video camera,” Kneen writes. “It is an unwinding.”

Stephen Romei

Text Publishing, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Krissy Kneen, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen: Travels with My Grandmother’s Ashes".

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Reviewer: Stephen Romei