Bec Reich is a forty-year-old lecturer in art, whose own art career has stalled. Bec is getting over surgery when her sister Emily, a famous artist who she hasn’t spoken to for twenty-three years, calls and invites her to the launch of her new show in Beijing. Emily is also famous for being schizophrenic and Bec, too, hints at mental illness in her past. Emily’s call awakens Bec’s memories of their strange childhood and the games, fantasies and delusions which they shared.
Cut off from social contact, the sisters are brought up by their grandmother, a woman who locks all the doors and windows every night and forbids them to venture off the family property. The family live in small-town Queensland where the townsfolk assume they are part of a strange religious group.
As the story alternates between the past and the present, the reader slowly learns more about the sisters. Bec adores her older sister and would do anything to be included in her games. Emily is horse-mad and initiates a game of steeplechase where she forces Bec to play the part of the horse. ‘I am a bad horse, a lazy horse, a slow horse, and I take the whipping silently because it is true. I am a bad horse. I am not any kind of horse at all,’ says Bec. I enjoyed the contrast between the voices of the teenage Bec and the older Bec. A sub-plot relating to Bec’s relationship with a much-younger student is also well-drawn.
This story was so skilfully told so that I never knew quite which parts were reality and which parts delusion. Reading it was like putting together a puzzle. Kneen’s writing is both simple and evocative, creating a sense of lurking threat behind everyday actions. A scene where Bec listens to a phone’s ring tone, imagining she can hear someone breathing is particularly chilling. And what about Raphael, the lover the sisters shared, did he really exist? As Bec joins Emily in Beijing, the story races towards a startling and satisfying conclusion.
Steeplechase is both beautifully written and a page-turner that provides insight into madness and art. I couldn’t put it down.
This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.
For those in the Byron Bay area, Krissy Kneen will be in conversation at the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre on the 10th of May and running a workshop on erotic writing on the 11th of May. Details here.