'An Uncertain Grace' by Krissy Kneen - reflection by David Burton

We're rolling through the Stella Prize shortlist. Catch up on our thoughts on The Fish Girl, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and The Life to Come. A declaration before we begin: I know Krissy Kneen. I’ve interviewed her, been Facebook buddies with her, and giggled with her at a couple of events for Brisbane’s Avid Reader. I’m a fan.

The only shame in this is that such a declaration would dilute my praise of An Uncertain Grace in your eyes. Because you must believe me: An Uncertain Grace is one of the most stunningly intelligent novels I’ve read in a long time. You should read it immediately.

Krissy’s writing has most consistently been concerned with sex, including frequent bold experimentations in literary erotica. Her first book, Affection, is an ‘erotic memoir’ - a heart-breaking, compelling, unflinchingly honest account of her relationship with sex and body. Four novels have followed, and an award-winning collection of poetry. In An Uncertain Grace, however, Krissy interest in intimacy, sex and - most powerfully – science, intersect.

an-uncertain-graceThe novel has five parts set over the course of a woman’s (Liv) life. It begins sometime in the near future. Liv has created a virtual memoir. She sends the memory stick to her old university lecturer, who experiences her narrative through a virtual reality bodysuit. He re-lives their previous sexual relationship through her eyes and body. Questions of agency, reality and consent abound. This first chapter alone is worth the price of admission into Kneen’s imagination. In a culture that is obsessed with renewed self-examination on the intricacies of power, sex and working relationships, Kneen provides no clear answers. But her exploration is one of the most compelling, layered and truthful narratives - not in spite of her leaning into science-fiction, but because of it.

The other four chapters have similarly irresistible premises. I heartily encourage you to discover them for yourself, as I did, and allow yourself to be surprised. Otherwise, I’ll outline just what the blurb gives away here. If you want the surprise, skip the next paragraph.

Liv’s career means she is at the forefront of experiments in consciousness and technology. She recruits a convicted paedophile into a trial to experience collective consciousness. Later, she helps design a synthetic boy to ‘love’ men who desire adolescents. In her old age, Liv is trying to find ways to escape her raging body and befriends a youth who is transitioning to a state beyond male or female. In the final chapter, Liv is no longer bound by her body, but still craves love.

Kneen’s literary bravery has long been established. An Uncertain Grace is not a fun roll-in-the-hay piece of erotica, but Kneen has never been interested in that form. Rather, her prowess as a writer who is undaunted by sex creates an alluring gateway into science-fiction, especially when dealing with cerebral, abstract concepts such as collective consciousness or digital preservation of the self. At the heart of every chapter are unforgettable, intriguing characters. Kneen never lets the ideas of the book supersede the story, letting the larger themes of agency and power unfurl at their own accord. This means the book is simultaneously a deeply enjoyable read and an intellectual workout.

An Uncertain Grace joins five other titles in the wonderfully diverse Stella Prize Shortlist. At time of writing, I’ve read all of them. While all are excellent, none have pulled me into their orbit quite as strongly as An Uncertain Grace. I highly recommend it.