If Krissy Kneen is not already known as The Literary Chameleon, then she should be. Once again, she has flexed her writing muscle and proven her literary adaptability and diversity with her most recent novel Wintering (Text Publishing 2018). As we have come to expect from this author, Wintering is a genre-bending hybrid, but it is a departure from anything I have read from her before – part ghost story, part horror outback noir, part romance, part Twilight Zone, part mystery – and all, of course, bound together with the curiosity, affection and respect for science and nature that all her writing captures.
For those of you unfamiliar with Kneen’s work, she does have a reputation for giving us some of the steamiest and sexiest erotic fiction published in Australia, although she has also written memoir, literary fiction and award-winning poetry (AND was recently shortlisted for the Stella Prize). But if risqué is not your cup of tea, and you’ve been wondering where to start with this author, then this latest – Wintering – is a perfect introduction: gentle, subtle and sensitive, with a conventional narrative that is easy to read and relatable, with the addition of mysterious spine-tingling occurrences and a plot-driven sense of thrill that will have you turning the pages faster and faster as the story develops.
But do not let the gentleness and subtlety fool you. This is a book with a chilling puzzle at its centre, a story with unexplained events and creepy characters. Perhaps it’s a frightening descent into madness, or maybe it’s an insightful perspective on incidents and behaviour we can’t explain. The reader is left to decide which version they believe, which is more plausible, which is the most palatable.
The protagonist Jessica is a glow-worm scientist, and when her partner disappears while driving through the dense Tasmanian forest, Jessica is forced to face uncomfortable rumours, confrontational locals and the fears of her own mind as she sets about to uncover the truth. What she discovers about her missing partner – and about herself, and what she might be capable of – threatens not only her state of mind and her way of life, but also has the potential to unlock long-buried secrets of her past.
The story is full of strong and competent women. The hint of domestic violence and the abuse of power, or power imbalance, runs in an almost subterraneous way throughout the story, much like Jessica’s underground caves where she does her research and feels most at home. This ‘message’ is so subtle, however, that it is not really until you reach the end of the book that you understand the full impact of what has happened, of the tangled relationships of Jessica’s past, and the dangers of her current predicament.
The book features fishing, guns, scientists, widows, rednecks, religious fanatics and Australian native wildlife – both alive and extinct (maybe? …) Also, this book is very COLD. From the first page to the last, we feel immersed in the bone-chilling cold of the Tasmanian forest, where fires must always be lit and coats always worn, and where shelter is essential. Deep in the heart of Tasmanian wilderness, where even the SOS function on your mobile phone fails, where anything could happen and where, if it did, nobody would hear you scream … that is the setting for this gothic tale.
If there’s one thing that the many writings of Krissy Kneen have in common, it is that her words provoke robust discussion about the depth of human emotions, the parameters around human behaviour, and the roles of judgement versus tolerance in society. Kneen is a courageously inquisitive investigator of the human condition and has a keen appreciation of the perplexing and the profound.