I have spent the last few days completely immersed in the life of my friend, author Krissy Kneen; eating her food, sitting with her family, traveling with her to foreign lands to try to understand her history. I have emerged from her memoir, blinking, like a mole too long underground. Reading this story is a meditative experience; her writing is transcendental and luminous. This book: The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen (Text Publishing 2021) is a magical, fantastical tale scaffolded by truth, lies and fairy tales, anchored to the earth by solid research and real-life fact-finding missions, embellished by wondrous fictional interpretations of whatever Krissy couldn’t pin down, and supported by the history and lore and cultural stories of her ancestors. It is a marvellous work of art.
It is, I think, perhaps her greatest achievement yet, partly because it is so well-written, so easy to read, so engaging, so interesting. (There is a first division lotto win, the 40-degree heat of the Australian bush, the roiling of her grandmother as a snake in her gut, a sideways birth on virgin snow, wild women with their feet on backwards, a divided cemetery, genetic testing, knives and science and maps, Beautiful Viga and Baba Yaga and folklore and papier-mache dinosaurs, bicycles, dreams and twins).
But it is also astounding because it is her search for herself, and her quest to untangle the complicated threads of her grandmother and her maternal side of her family. This book IS Krissy. When I heard her speak recently at the launch, she was entirely comfortable, at ease in a way I have never seen her before. She talks about every aspect of the book – the unanswered questions, the unfamiliar journeys, the kind strangers, the new-found relatives, the dragons, the fairy tales, the secrets, the mystery, the grief and the food, always the food – she speaks about all these things as if she is a well-spring of words that may never dry up. She has stories about stories about stories. Her eyes shine as she shares her findings. This investigation into her family history has awakened something vital in her. Krissy Kneen is the same person and yet she is different, changed somehow. She is armed with knowledge of the previously unknowable, full with the weight of new friends and relations, comfortable with the pieces of her past that she has collected and sifted and sorted into some sort of order. She has indeed taken the threads of her grandmother’s life and woven a new tapestry. And it is something beautiful.
The title (and the subtitle: Travels with my grandmother’s ashes) depict exactly the story within. Krissy had always been kept in the dark about the details of her maternal history. Her matriarchal grandmother was tight-lipped about her past, secretive about her ancestry, and strongly possessive of Krissy and her sister, binding them to her with a sort of magical power. The night of the launch, a massive storm opened the Brisbane skies and a deluge of heavy rain slowed traffic and soaked everyone attempting to travel to Avid Reader Bookstore. That is Lotty, we all thought, showing her displeasure.
For there is no doubt she would have been displeased with Krissy’s curious and adventurous attempts to unravel the complex matrix of her life. But, and I believe this very strongly, I feel that she would also have been fiercely proud. Proud of how Krissy has honoured her life and her history by visiting those places, eating that food and interacting with those people that, added together, wipe away a little of the dust and smoke hiding her past, and allow us to really see her. We see her as a matriarch caring for her family and keeping them close the only way she knows how. We see her as a young woman, strong and independent and desperate to keep her family comfortable and safe. We see her as a child, alone and vulnerable and forced to survive on her wits and despite the intergenerational trauma suffered by not only herself but those before her.
That is what this story is: an honouring. Krissy mourns her beloved grandmother – her cruel, exacting, secretive, loving, indomitable grandmother – by travelling the world to search for the best lasting resting places for her ashes. She finds three locations, each imbued with meaning. As we journey along with Krissy to Slovenia and to Egypt, as we uncover with her the amazing story of the Alexsandrinke, the Slovenian women who gave up their own children to nanny the progeny of wealthy Italians before the war, as we weep and rejoice and laugh with her throughout her impossible, improbable travels, full of bizarre coincidences, we find relief each time she identifies a place that her grandmother’s ‘restless, demanding spirit will be at peace’.
This book is about terrible things – war, starvation, rape, sacrifice and grim determination. It is an engrossing, compelling story of isolation, ignorance, secrets and lies, power and control, trauma, grief and forced forgetting.
But it is also indelibly woven with tender and beautiful things – stoicism, identity, belonging, love, family, the discovery of truth, and the comforting settling of familiarity and understanding.
This is Krissy’s version of her story, her place in the world. It is her masterpiece.