‘Not a Tiger at All: A Review of Krissy Kneen’s “Wintering”’, by Madeleine Laing

Text Publishing

I wanted to introduce this review with the premise that it seems like there’s a lot of books set in Tasmania at the moment — but really I can only name two: Wintering, and Di Morrisey’s latest Australian Epic Arcadia. Maybe it’s more that Tassie is in the air, generally. The population of Hobart is growing faster than anywhere else in Australia (just ask anyone who’s tried to rent a house there). Its produce and chefs are being lauded as the best in the country; tourism from Australia and overseas is booming. And it just seems the perfect setting for a dramatic Australian mystery — it’s spectacularly beautiful, with a dark history and a people often regarded as insular and inscrutable. Against this moment, Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, the story of a flaky-but-genius glow worm scientist confronting a monster in an isolated part of south east Tassie, captures one isolated pocket with her typically rich and beautiful prose.

On meeting Jessica’s boyfriend Matthew, it is immediately clear he’s a massive dickhead. He beeps the car horn to hurry Jessica after picking her up late from work. He drives dangerously, flashing the headlights on and off while speeding through the dark forest, and patronises Jessica when she gets mad. It’s a relief to us, if not to Jessica, when he soon goes missing, his car found abandoned by police on the highway between his work and home. Shortly after his disappearance, Jessica is contacted by a group of twelve other women, calling themselves “widows”, whose men were “taken”. They think they know what happened to them: they were turned into tigers, half-men half-monsters, who continue to torment their partners for months after their disappearance unless permanently stopped.

Jessica, like me, is originally from Queensland, but has been living in Southport for eight years. After Matthew’s disappearance, and on her own in a tiny thin-walled shack on the edge of the ocean, Jessica starts to realise how isolated she really is. She’s forced to go into town and interact with the locals for the first time, people who seem to know Matthew much better than she does. At the shop she runs into his close friend from the fish farm, William. They bond quickly. William is sweet, easy-going, earnest. They sleep together. The one sex scene in the book is characteristically great; Kneen always manages to make the sex feel integral to the story, integrating images of the ocean and maintaining the same atmosphere of desperation, tension, and only brief relief, as the rest of the book.

After reading Wintering I wanted to drive down to Southport, walk around and see where the book was set. But it’s two hours from our house, and I can’t drive, and it’s a long trip to ask my boyfriend to make for a bit of inspiration. I moved to Tasmania from Brisbane in January. We live in a coastal town called Dodges Ferry forty minutes north-east of Hobart. It’s named after a man called Ralph Dodge, who used to run a ferry across to the city. That was stopped a long time ago, along with the rest of the ferries, trams and trains.

I don’t really need to go to Southport for inspiration, or to feel the setting of the book. I can see and feel the cold deserted main street (one pub, one shop), huddled in the forest. I can feel the sea spray from the rocky beach, that same dark blue ocean I see every morning when I wake up, so much more mysterious and beautiful than the flat green sea up north. I feel the cold that Jessica, always without a proper coat, is so affected by.

In many other ways, my Tasmania isn’t much like Jessica’s cloistered and lonely place. But I’ve slept in the car on the edge of a forest without the money for a hotel, before we lucked onto sublets and couches. I’ve spent days without talking to anyone except my boyfriend. I know that feeling of your whole world becoming one person, as Jessica’s does. I’ve felt that cold; how dangerous it can be even in autumn.

We all know Tasmania is cold. But it’s not until you move down here that you fully understand the power and the fear of the wind. My life isn’t much like Jessica’s, but we’ve both felt the thin walls of our ocean shacks bend against the wind, the windows rattle all night long, so violently it feels inevitable that they’ll bust in (though they never do). The tension night after night of going to bed with howls ringing in your ears: that’s how reading Wintering feels — as though you’re in that shack on the edge of a cliff with Jessica, trying to cling to reality as the fear and tension builds, and unreal things start to happen.

By convincing her she’ll never fit in with the locals, Matthew makes Jessica an outsider to the community they’ve lived in for eight years, and the full impact of her isolation only becomes clear after Matthew goes missing. Isolation is a persistent theme in Wintering, but it’s also a theme of the whole of Tasmania. There’s all the hiking and camping of course, but also the common practice of people who work in the city buying bush blocks — overgrown blocks in the middle of the forest or near the beach — simply to have somewhere to get away from people. In most areas the attitude seems to be friendly but private.

Jessica’s outsider status allows Kneen (a Brisbane writer) to use her own perspective as someone not from Tasmania (though her father lives near to where the book is set, and she visits often). But even if you’re wholeheartedly trying to assimilate it’s easy to feel like an outsider here. Everything about the island says ‘you shouldn’t be here’. The city clinging to the side of the mountain, million-dollar houses with incredible views losing their whole garden down the hill in heavy rains. The forests, whose impenetrability Kneen so ably captures. The deadly cold seas and rocky shores. It is no surprise that born-and-bred Tasmanians have a kind of unshakeable self-assurance, a quiet stubbornness and suspicion of outsiders, after spending their lives on this beautiful but hostile island. The history of Tasmania is a kind of concentrated history of Australia’s colonial antagonism, amplified by isolation. Clearing million-year-old forests, wiping out species, and the genocide of a people (which continues institutionally across the country today) — that is the history that’s celebrated with every colonial tour and proudly-displayed Tassie tiger insignia on logos and government symbols.

I recognise the way Jessica feels walking into a pub in her small town of Southport, trying to get more information about Matthew’s disappearance, as she learns there’s so much about him she doesn’t know. It’s not like the movies, that record-scratch, all-eyes-on-you open distrust. More an obvious acknowledgment that you’re different from the people who come in every day. No one’s seen you around, nobody knows your family. But, then, I’ve felt this way almost constantly, regardless of where I am. Walking into rock venues, praying there’ll be someone I can talk to without awkwardness; in cafes by myself reading; at BBQs where I’m trying not to blurt out everything I’ve ever felt, remain laid back. At least in the outer suburbs, in the sticks, on the coast, my outsider status is obvious. I don’t have to try to look like I belong. I’m an inner-city twenty-five-year-old who studied arts for four years and who couldn’t really hack city life. Someone who reads a lot of books but can’t remember any theory. I can’t drive a boat or a car, can’t fish or farm. But I’d like to drink a beer, thanks.

But there are also some moments in the book where I recognise some of the motivations behind Matthew’s violence. Matthew is that smart guy who’s got a chip on his shoulder about never going to uni, never leaving his small town. After a violent fight he says to Jessica, “You could go anywhere. Why would you stay with me? You’re so smart. You could do anything, go anywhere. I’m a dumb nothing.” Even as Jessica decides to do away with Matthew for good, she falters; he’s still able to manipulate her with his pathetic act, “his voice small and hurt, a damaged thing. The voice of never-meant-to-hurt-you. Every time the apology, the excuse, this tiny voice. This damaged little boy man.” He thinks he’s too good for his fish farm jobs and his friends at the pub, and the way he makes himself feel better is by undermining Jessica, by making her feel like she can’t survive without him. He cooks their every meal, won’t let her light their fire, becomes enraged with jealousy whenever she tries to make a connection with anyone else in town.

Before I moved to Tasmania I was becoming bitter about how far away my life was from the one I thought I’d lead growing up. I thought I would be a great non-fiction writer, a music academic, or a famous chef. But one by one it seemed I just wasn’t quite good enough at any of it. My writing was never as good as I wanted it to be, and I felt each rejection from magazines and journals as a new furious pain. My grades at uni were average at best; I couldn’t handle the stress of a busy kitchen; I was slow and clumsy. My anxiety got worse. I obsessed over every interaction, felt marred by my self-pity. I resented my friends’ successes quietly and my enemies’ openly. But then I fell in love and moved somewhere where all that shit seemed not to matter so much: by the ocean, driving past fields of newborn lambs on the way to work, making $400 a week working retail, selling books and candles to wealthy women — but getting to fall asleep to the sound of waves, and making cakes every day.

For Matthew, though, his bitterness and self-pity festers into something violent and ugly. Kneen deftly shows how Matthew’s rage and abuse doesn’t come from some inexplicable evil, but from fear, and a violent upbringing. It’s obvious that Matthew feels that he’s gotten a raw deal. He’s read “Kant and Foucault, and Deleuze and all of Hemingway”, and he passes off his pissy-baby jealousy as some kind of emotional sensitivity that sets him apart from all the other salmon farmers. He resents Jessica for her education and her opportunities so convinces her she can never live without him. And Jessica, too caught up in her own research, down in the glow worm caves, has stayed just distracted enough not to notice that it’s all bullshit.

As she’s starting to discover who Matthew really is, Jessica forms an uneasy bond with Marijam, one of the widows, an older woman living in tiny Cockle Creek (population: three). They bond over their love of fishing, and Marijam provides a kind of tough-love guidance for Jessica throughout the book. As Jessica leaves Marijam for the last time she considers that she could be looking at her future self: “again she felt dizzy, seeing her future staring into her eyes. And it wasn’t so bad really. Tough, solitary, self-sufficient. Wise? Maybe.”

But there’s a world of difference between Jessica and Marijam, and Jessica and the rest of the women. It’s a world of opportunity. There are twelve other women in the group of widows; we know Marijam, pregnant teenager Crystal, and gruff, middle-aged Maude who first contacts Jessica and revolts her with her body odour, aren’t on PhD scholarships, and if any of the others are full-time academics we’re not told. Maude’s stink, not washing her clothes and her body, is a sign of living alone. But it could also be the low self-esteem that comes with poverty.

In the end, Jessica saves herself, after Matthew returns in a different form to violate her again. But, what really saves her is her education. Her PhD, once she submits it, is a work of genius. “It’s lovely work — poetry. I’ll be surprised if you’re sent back for any changes at all,” her supervisor says to her in passing as she packs up her desk at the university. At this point her future looks very different to that of the twelve other women, without Jessica’s opportunity or education, down there alone in the forest.

Between the lines, Kneen presents is another possible future for Jessica, where she isn’t able to stand up to Matthew or save her promising romance. One where she’s driven mad with rage and grief and does isolate herself totally, does end up like Marijam, living alone, fishing, wrinkling in the high UV. Or maybe, already unhinged by her violent upbringing and controlling relationship, Jessica imagines the whole thing — Kneen teases this possibility, as Jessica starts to question everything that’s happened to her: “Perhaps it was an extended hallucination: the coven of woman, the hunting, the dog, the man, the sex. How could any of it be real? She was losing her mind.”

It’s an interesting idea that Kneen plants, delving into the kind of psychological thriller territory she explored in her first novel Steeplechase. But to destroy Jessica and William’s relationship, or make him never exist at all would have made this a crueller, more difficult book — and not a better one. Wintering is a story of survival and strength, and that’s what makes it so easy to read and to recommend. Any other way would leave the reader feeling cheated, without the sense of hope for women struggling in isolation.

The book that Kneen has written is beautiful, gripping, a good yarn. I recommend it to people in the bookstore; I tell them it’s about setting and character as much as the initial mystery. That it’s dark but in the end, hopeful. It’s an easy book to sell and I get a thrill every time someone walks away with it, knowing the story they’re about to discover. But I am still surprised with how much it has stuck with me, how much it makes me think about Southport, about towns like it all around the country. Swap cold for hot and fish farms for cattle stations and you’ve got Central Australia, or North Queensland. How much it makes me think about the people; who thrives, who suffers, who gets forced out and who runs. For people, like me, who grew up in the city, who can only ever be outsiders to places like this, books like Wintering do a service.

Madeleine Laing cooks (often) and writes (sometimes) in Tasmania. She edits and contributes to whothehell.net, an Australian music blog, and posts food pics @itfoob.