The steeplechase is a very clever metaphor for this book: I know that there are fans of this form of horse-racing, but there is also ongoing concern about it here in Australia (where it is banned in NSW and Qld) because of the death and injury rate for both horse and rider. Jumps racing is banned in NSW and in Qld but not here in Victoria where our Premier was the previous Racing Minister and member for Warrnambool which – contrary to its animal-welfare-friendly image for whale-watching - is the ‘heart-land’ of jumps racing. I find the whole concept of it cruel: it involves deliberately placing hazardous objects in the course and expecting the horse and rider to compete at speed over the jumps. It’s a cruel and dangerous sport.
So the title, and the early chapters about Bec’s big sister Emily forcing her to play the role of horse in a steeplechase alerts the reader to the sense of menace that underlies this clever and exquisitely written book. If (like me) you have been a little doubtful about Krissy Kneen’s persona as a writer of erotica because the whole 50 thing was so tiresome, you can rest assured that this novel fits my criteria for a work of literary fiction.
It ticks one of my favourite literary fiction boxes too: I love novels about artists. Both Bec and her sister are artists who share a strange childhood background. They were brought up by their grandmother, now silenced by a stroke. A migrant who fled Europe, this grandmother supported the family by doing restorations of priceless paintings in their rural home. Each night she locked the house against the menace outside, but the locks and chains and bolts were really there to keep their mother in. There was no father, and the mother was a subdued shadow whose mental illness was managed by drugs and the eternal vigilance of the grandmother. The children were home-schooled so they had very little contact with a more normal world…
In adulthood, Emily is internationally famous, not just for her creative output but also for her ‘stunts’ – which are not really stunts at all, they are manifestations of the mental illness which claims her too. Bec is a self-doubting painter who teaches at university. She has been more successful in managing the madness which seems to run in the family, but she suspects that she will never achieve the genius of her sister without it.
Bec’s twin desires – for a transgressive relationship with one of her students and for the insights that she thinks madness can bring – are brought into focus by her own exhibition and an invitation to Beijing to attend Emily’s exhibition there. She is torn between controlling her own behaviour, as her psychiatrist has taught her to do, and casting off the constraints which limit her opportunities for love and for art.
Steeplechase is only a short novel of 200-odd pages but it is cunningly constructed and hard to put down.
I hope Krissy Kneen writes more like this!
Author: Krissy Kneen
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing