An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

This book is bananas.

I didn’t ‘like’ it but it’s hard not to be impressed by something that is so incredibly creative and thought-provoking.

But before I go on, it should be noted that Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace comes with a big bunch of trigger warnings (rape, sex crimes against children, treatment of paedophiles).

An Uncertain Grace is a novel in five parts, each story linked by a single character, Liv, at different stages of her life. Over decades, Liv develops ‘virtual narrative’ technology, which I understand from the story to be a combination of a virtual reality experience and re-writing the sensory and cognitive experience a person has had. Each part of the story reveals more about the technology, beginning with Liv sending her university lecturer (and ex-lover) a memory stick and a virtual reality bodysuit so that he can re-experience their relationship from her perspective.

How do you record a sensation of fear? Is it the heart rate communicated through the tiny receptors in the rubber?…How is this story ‘written’? And what part of it is authored? What percentage comes from the reader?

In the next part of the story, a convicted paedophile is recruited to test the concept of ‘collective consciousness’ and in doing so, find release from his own desolation (does he deserve ‘release’? These are the kinds of questions this book throws at you from every angle).

Next comes the story of Cameron, a synthetic boy designed to test the effects of sexual contact with minors on child-sex offenders.

‘Take your shirt off,’ he says and I won’t. I just won’t. Sometimes I do what they what they ask me to, and I do like the feel of the computer light on my chest, but they have made me unruly by nature. I resist direction. It is because I represent thirteen, full of Hormonal Anarchy.

Cameron, who begins to question his existence, knows that he has a job to do – I am here to protect the real children from this kind of contact. This is my primary function but of course it is still a pleasure. This thing which is bad for them is good for me.

Kneen examines the meaning of gender and the relevance of age in the final parts of the book, and again, offers a different world to what we know –

‘…when I was a kid there were trans people. Transgender. But there wasn’t a centre place. No concept of a twilight. No ungendered box to tick on your passport.’

There’s certainly enough in An Uncertain Grace to suggest a future world – massive climate change, the technology to sync human minds with those of animals, no more mobile phones (you ‘think’ your text messages) and a place where robots can’t be distinguished from humans.

Oxlade Drive is a fast-flowing bend in the river. There certainly isn’t any driving to be done there. But the proud heads and shoulders of a few high-rise apartment blocks still muscle up out of the rushing water to prove that there was once a street below the surface of the river.

But there’s enough in this story that is familiar and real and true to right now and that’s why it’s so frightening. I guess the best dystopian stories work by amplifying the things we fear or don’t understand and putting them in a future world. Kneen’s focus on sex crimes and paedophiles and how they might be treated is both fascinating and chilling.

This book is challenging. I think if you enjoyed Ellen van Neerven’s weird short story, Pearl, or wanted to extend your futuristic reading along lines started by Atwood and continued with books such as The Power and The Natural Way of Things, then An Uncertain Grace would be right up your alley.

4/5 Just to be clear, I didn’t ‘enjoy’ this book but I greatly admire Kneen’s writing and originality.

Instead of a recipe, I’m pairing the book with a photograph by Sebastiao Salgado, of the same title. The photograph is referenced in Kneen’s story.

16 responses

    • Would love to hear your thoughts on this one Bill. I’m hoping that it makes the Stella long (and short) lists to generate a broader discussion. I hadn’t read any Kneen before although have one more in the TBR stack.

      Will look forward to your SF post. I rarely read SF – read Handmaids when I was about 18 and given that I hadn’t really read anything like it, left a big impression. Books like this Kneen strike a good balance for me – clearly speculative but with a focus on current issues (which is also why The Natural Way of Things appealed to me).

  1. This sounds really complex. I do like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Natural Way of Things so I should definitely give it a try, but it’s clearly going to have to be at a time when my brain is up to it!

    • It’s reads fairly easily which is also why it’s a bit deceptive – you’re speeding through certain sections and then you stop and realise that Kneen is talking about very big, serious issues. I read one part a day over five days to digest.

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