Brisbane writer Krissy Kneen has a deft touch with prose; her character’s voice in Steeplechase (Text, 2013) flows off the page, captivating and intriguing and thoroughly believable. And what a tale she tells, of her and her sister, her mother and Oma, all locked up in a history of mental illness where reality and truth are stretched to breaking point, not unlike a painter’s canvas stretched on a rack.
For Emily Reich is a painter of renown, having left her sister Bec — our narrator — in the shade.
Life for the sisters has been insular, to say the least, with their grandmother running the house, father gone, mother herself locked away inside a mental breakdown of sorts, a haunting presence that dominates the rural homestead. Stern Oma restores paintings for a living; she sequesters the girls, perhaps fearful of them falling prey to their mother’s sickness. For naught, as it happens.
Emily, having had her turn with illness, is in China, living large on her renown, while Bec, still very much in her shadow and more than a little fragile herself, ekes out a living as an art teacher and painter of less renown.
There’s that student Bec’s bonking — how wrong, but yet, so occasionally right — and there’s the imaginary boy who teased her and her sister so magnificently; the neighbour’s horse of childhood distractions, the games of steeplechase in the back yard, sisterly dynamics and a past disaster that hangs over them both.
I’ve read the word ‘claustrophobic’ used to describe the first section of this two-parter, and it’s a good choice, the past infusing the present, Bec locked between the two. And in her future, inducing yet further unease, that invitation from her sister to attend an exhibition in China — the second part, less claustrophobic but no less unsettling as Bec flounders in the foreign streets, trying to work through to the truth of the past and forge an understanding with her brilliant, troubled sister.
My only hesitation of the course was in the denouement: a little too much too soon for me, but I can’t argue that Bec earned her just rewards.
Identity, mental illness, art and, yes, horses — though equestrians might not find much to please them, here — form this delicious miasma, with the weather — sub-tropical Brisbane, I belatedly realised; and confronting, bird-less Beijing, Kneen drawing on her time there to invoke smells and sights fit to alienate our heroine — used superbly to enhance the mood.
Kneen debuted sensationally with her gorgeously rendered erotic memoir Affection and followed that with thoughtfully pornographic Triptych (which I have yet to read), both through Text; this, her first foray into less salacious fiction, confirms she’s a writer who deserves to go the distance.