Call it kismet

My half of the story begins in Cairo in the spring of 2018; a spring of heat-slurred days and Iftar nights. My husband, Sam, had been posted to the Australian embassy, ​​and the two of us were living in a hotel while we searched for an apartment. Our room looked out to the Nile and overhung the hotel function centre. At night, fireworks erupted against the bedroom windows or landed on the balcony and fizzed into a frenzy. Between the jet lag, the fireworks and the raw newness of it all, I gave up on night sleeping. I’d start a book as the dark came down and finish with the dawn call to prayer, then dream my way through the hours of high sun.

One of those insomniac books was An Uncertain Grace (2017), a novel-in-stories by the Brisbane-based author Krissy Kneen. I knew nothing much of it, or of them. In the days before we left for Cairo, I had bought Aussie fiction haphazardly, ravenously. A suitcase full of novels. A salve, I thought, for homesickness. But Kneen is not in the business of solace.

The opening act of the novel sees a professor relive an affair with a former student as if he, the professor, were inside her skin, by way of a virtual-reality bodysuit. The professor remembers a mutual surrender to pleasure; the student does not. Inside the bodysuit, the professor experiences their conflicting accounts simultaneously, a kind of sensory stereopsis. There is no penitent little fable here; the encounter is as seductive as it is damning. There is a dark power, Kneen argues – and a darker ecstasy – in being both predator and prey. When you work as a book critic, you read a lot of inoffensive novels; volume after volume of amiably defanged fiction. An Uncertain Grace was profane and sublime, a novel snarled in techno-ethical knots and wash in eco-grief: beautiful robot children lured sex offenders; a ruined anthropocene sea quivered with noxious jellyfish.

I finished the book in the thick, pre-dawn dark. I can’t quite explain the compulsion, but I felt the need to tell the author where the tales had found me and where they had taken me; to tell Kneen of my Cairo nights. So, for the first time in my life, I wrote a fan letter.

Krissy’s half of the story begins at the feet of their grandmother, Lotty Kneen, the family matriarch: a gifted paper artist, collector of grisly folk stories and self-confessed witch. When Krissy was a child, Lotty won the lottery and moved the family to a remote property in the Queensland bush, where they made life-sized papier-mâché monsters – the beasts from Lotty’s favorite tales – for a desolate theme park. At Dragonhall, Lotty’s daughters and granddaughters could be shielded from the evils of the world and the venal treachery of men. The source of Lotty’s hyper-vigilance was never explained; she guarded the past as ferociously as she guarded her family. Questions were forbidden.

Over time, Krissy pieced together a bare outline: Lotty had once been named Dragica and had been born in what is now Slovenia; she had traveled to Alexandria in childhood, then fled Cairo as a married woman in the late 1950s, when President Nasser expelled expatriates from Egypt. Lotty arrived in England with two infant daughters – Krissy’s mother and aunt – and a suitcase that had been robbed of its contents, save for a human skull. From there the exiled family made their way to Australia, where that winning lottery ticket and a life of self-imposed seclusion waited for them.

When Lotty died, it was as if some gatekeeping spell had been broken. Krissy was freed to seek a new story: a lineage, a history, a mooring. In the spring of 2018, Krissy and their partner, Anthony, flew to Slovenia, to try to find Lotty’s home village, but with no photographs or documents, and few full names, research soon stalled. On the streets of Ljubljana, Krissy searched the faces of strangers for some jolt of recognition; an echo of Krissy’s own face.

A chance encounter in a bookshop unearthed a lead: the Alexandrinke, a group of Slovenian women from the country’s western borderlands who, from the 1890s, became nursemaids to the children of wealthy European families in Alexandria. The money they sent home saved their war-ravaged villages from starvation, but the women often had to leave their own children behind, and the sacrifice was a source of shame. Many Alexandrinke never returned to Slovenia, and those who did – reappearing in their Alexandrian finery, with heads full of new cosmopolitan ideas – were ostracized.

As Krissy read of the Alexandrinke, it became clear that Lotty’s story was part of a long-neglected history of economic desperation and cultural reproach. The trail Krissy was chasing led to Egypt. A last-minute trip before returning to Australia seemed to be an impossible logistical scramble; and then how to begin to trace one woman’s story in a country of more than one hundred million people? When Krissy checked their email in the bookshop café, a fan letter from Cairo was waiting. “If you ever decide to visit – and I hope you do – please know you have a place to stay.”

Krissy and Anthony arrived in Cairo bearing a two-foot-long Slovenian sausage, a matchbox full of Lotty’s ashes and the story of the Alexandrinke. Sam and I met the couple with a travel schedule and a rough-and-ready research plan: the staff at the Australian embassy had arranged some hasty public events where Krissy would share the developing story, and we would see what happened. (The past is ever restless in Egypt, especially those years surrounding the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Nasser flexed his might.) Within a few days, Krissy was sipping tea in the loungeroom of a new-found family member in the outer suburbs of Alexandria, and decanting Lotty’s ashes into the sea from an overpass bridge. The whole grand, improbable saga was poured into The Three Burials of Lotty Kneenthe memoir Krissy wrote in the year that followed.

It starts me still to read that book’s final act: my invitation materializing, beacon-like, as if summoned by sheer force of wanting; a real-world plot twist. How to explain the riotous luck of it all? The lost diplomatic passports, for instance, that delayed my departure to Egypt for an extra week – the week I bought An Uncertain Grace. Or the email I received from my literary agent, Jane, in the days after I sent my one-and-only fan letter, introducing me to a fellow client – ​​a certain Krissy Kneen – who was considering a last-minute trip to Cairo on the strength of some somnambulant invitation from an unknown Aussie expat. Might I accompany Krissy, Jane asked, to make sure this wasn’t some kind of Kathy Bates Misery situation?

It is easy to turn it all into a destiny-riven fairy tale; that’s what memoir is, the literary collision of memory and myth. Although what is extraordinary to me is not the kismet of my offer, but Krissy’s emphatic assent. It’s the quality that animates their fiction, its wild receptivity. A quality Krissy learned – or perhaps salvaged – from those lonely days at Dragonhall.

Before Krissy learned of the Alexandrinke, and all they relinquished, Lotty’s story was largely confined to that empty theme park and its repressed traumas; it was a story Krissy survived. The story Krissy tells now is one of the world-shaping muscle of women’s work, and of intergenerational resilience. It’s an inheritance Krissy is passing on to other children of the Alexandrinke. That I can revisit the birth of that story on the page is a quiet marvel to me. When I read The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, my memory and Krissy’s memoir seem to play out in tandem. I’m reminded of the futuristic bodysuit in the novel that brought us together.

But if I’m honest, I only picked-up An Uncertain Grace because of the cover: a gauzy jellyfish in a dreamless cobalt sea. After dark, the Nile teems with party boats: flat-decked, neon-draped motorboats that blast shaabi music across the water. The night I began Krissy’s book, the reflected glow of the boats pulsed across the hotel ceiling and the room felt like it was underwater. So did I. Egypt was my third country of residence in two years; Cairo, my thirtieth move. Much later, when that well-storied city felt like a kind of home, I would learn that the Arabic for jellyfish is qandeel al-bahrlantern of the sea.

Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and critic

The post Call it kismet appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment