Darn that Australian Women Writers Challenge! It has introduced me to a bunch of Aussie women writers I hadn’t heard of previously, one of whom is today’s author, Krissy Kneen. I may not have read her quite as soon as I have – there are so many I want to read – if it hadn’t been for Text Publishing sending me Steeplechase. It’s Kneen’s third book but first novel. She has also written Affection: An intimate memoir, which was shortlisted in 2010 for the non-fiction prize in the (now-defunct) Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and Triptych a work of literary erotica. Steeplechase, the frontmatter tells us, is Kneen’s first non-erotic work.
It is a contemporary novel about two sisters, told in first person by the younger, Bec. Both are artists, but while Bec is an art teacher who also paints and exhibits, her sister Emily is a wildly successful artist whose works have been sold for astronomical prices by Sotheby’s. Bec, 40, lives in Australia, and Emily in China. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for 23 years when, out of the blue, at the beginning of the novel, Emily calls Bec and invites her to Beijing, telling her she has already bought the plane ticket. So the novel begins, and gradually the cause of their separation, “the terrible thing”, is revealed. It involves madness … Madness and art. An irresistible subject.
Kneen plots the story well, interspersing the present chronology with flashbacks. The sisters’ mother, we’re told, was mentally ill, and the three of them – mother and daughters – lived in the country with their grandmother Oma, an art conservator. She’s a strong woman, a matriarch, is Oma. The steeplechase metaphor is introduced in the first chapter, through imaginative play directed by Emily in which the girls pretend to be horses galloping and jumping through a course designed by, yes, Emily. “The steeplechase is dangerous”, Emily explains to Bec.
At first it seems that Emily is the typical bossy big sister, who likes to control and scare her little sister. And Bec is the typical younger sister, adoring and long-suffering. Gradually though it becomes clear that something is not quite right with Emily, that she is going the way of her mother. Around this time we “meet” Raphael who may, or may not, be Emily’s lover and who, on one dramatic night, seems to also become 15 year-old Bec’s lover. But, is he real? (According to the 16th century art historian and biographer, Vasari, the artist Raphael died prematurely due to a fever brought on by a night of excessive sex! I suspect the choice of name isn’t a coincidence.) Kneen teases us throughout with questions of reality and fantasy, drawing us into a world where it’s hard to know where “madness” may start and end.
Meanwhile, in the present, the novel starts with Bec recovering from gall-bladder surgery. She returns to work where we meet, among her students, 23-year-old John who is her lover. Bec, “the good girl”, feels guilty about this, recognising the ethical dilemma it creates.
But, that’s enough of the plot … It’s certainly more than I usually provide in my reviews but this is, largely, a plot-driven book. How is Emily now? Will Bec go visit her? What was “the terrible thing”? Why is Bec signing paintings in Emily’s name? Does John really love Bec? Is Bec a good artist? And, even, is Bec herself sane? These are some of the questions that arise as the novel progresses.
Steeplechase is compelling. It’s well-written and surely structured, with the shifting between present/life and past/memory all but coalescing at the climax. Kneen draws clearly but not slavishy on the traditions of the Gothic and mad-women. She teases us with paradox – Emily’s calm ordered room versus Bec’s messy chaotic one – and irony. Are they really “safe, protected, locked up tight” when Oma closes up the house at night?
I enjoyed her sensitive depiction of sisterly relationships, of the rivalry that runs parallel to unconditional love. She explores what happens when two sisters end up in the same career, one successful and the other not obviously so, and the lack of confidence that can ensue. We believe Bec’s self-assessment that she’s lesser, though there is a hint partway through the novel that she may be better than she thinks. Kneen weaves this though a story that explores madness, art, and memory that threatens to derail. My only reservation is that for a book which ponders the complexity of love (sibling and romantic), the nexus between madness-sanity and art, and the role of memory in constructing self, the resolution is just a little too neat. But that may just be me! It is, for all that, a darn good read.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)