The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

Whenever I look at this author’s name, I mistakenly see Melanie Watt, who is a Canadian children’s author. And for one second I think to myself, I didn’t know Melanie Watt wrote an adult novel! Just for s split second. And then I’m slightly disappointed that I’m not about to encounter Scaredy Squirrel or Chester the Cat in Australia searching for the Inland Sea. Or even just surfing.

I read The Inland Sea for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF event, and now that I think about it, the inclusion of Scaredy Squirrel might have helped to make the book more SFF than it turned out to be. I’d like to say it also counts for Brona’s AusReading Month in November since it’s really hard to fit an extra book into November. (I see this event has been moved to October for next year!)

The Inland Sea is a coming-of-age story in the ‘age of anxiety’ and climate crisis. After graduating college, a young woman (the unnamed narrator) feels at loose ends, and–with the idea of saving up some money and getting away–she takes a job as an emergency dispatch operator. She assures friends and family that she’s up for the job, but as we get more information about her past–growing up with divorced parents and a fearful mother–we get the feeling that this is not the job for her. And, sure enough, as she answers calls for accidents and assaults and fires, she becomes fearful of every dark corner and bump in the night.

… I became afraid of walking too close to the gutter and the cars that veered around corners too quickly. I was afraid of cyclists, people in tracksuits by traffic lights, afraid of staircases and lit cigarettes and power lines. I was afraid of men. I was afraid of just about everything.

For all her anxieties, she is reckless with her personal safety. She spends her free time drinking way too much and going home with strangers. Is she reacting to a feeling that doom will eventually befall her anyway? (“If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided.”) Or is it an extension of her chaotic childhood? Or an attempt to find some kind of temporary refuge from the chaos around her?

Her anxieties extend into the sleeping hours and are exacerbated by the record breaking heat waves and forest fires. She finds some comfort in the ocean. As well as her ex-boyfriend – a man she has started seeing again despite his attachment to one of her good friends. We readers know, of course, that her involvement with him is just another poor decision.

As he spoke the rivers swelled, the water tanks refilled, the pollutants and the sea snakes were cleansed from the storm surge, the Maldives rose above the waterline, the melting glaciers were restored to their rightful form. It seemed, as he spoke, that with him I was safe.

Running through the book is a thread of violence against women: her father’s abuse of her mother; men’s thoughtless treatment of her; the rapes in the news; comments she overhears at work; and the many allusions and metaphors the author uses throughout the book. This adds to the disheartening feeling that has already been established through the many climate disasters and emergency phone calls. All these things the narrator wants to escape.

Despite the book’s lack of science fiction/fantasy elements, I’m happy to have chosen it. I read so few Australian books that it’s nice to choose one that delivers a sense of the place: the radiating heat of Australia’s summers; the circulating smoke of the wildfires; the surprise of the sea serpent so near the swimmers; and the brief historic anecdotes about the search for the Inland Sea. Although the scenes of her dripping sweat in the summer heat don’t make me want to visit Australia, the scenes at the beach almost do. As long as I have a big umbrella and stay close to shore. Scaredy Squirrel might not fare very well in Australia, after all. Would we be happier in winter?

We were a people surrounded by water, living on one of the most arid continents in the world, a place rapidly running out of potable water, with no hope of any inland sea to hang our hopes on anymore. The rain could not be coaxed from the sky, the dams could not be raised, empty ghost rivers like the Lachlan would never run steady again.

A favourite passage: “… my stretch of Elizabeth Street was all kebab shops and bars and brothels, as though, in the half hour it took to walk down Elizabeth Street to my house the city was gradually loosening its belt and taking off its clothes.”

Check out Kim’s review of The Inland Sea at Reading Matters, where I first encountered this book.

27 thoughts on “The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

    • Naomi says:

      Isn’t it great?
      Normally, I would not have noted the lack of SFF, but in this case I was looking for it. No matter – I have many other books on my list that fit the bill!

  1. Brona's Books says:

    Thank you for a belated AusReading Month post!
    Thanks to La Nina, the east coast of Australia has been in flood for much of the past 2 years. The Lachlan river is certainly flowing high and fast atm (I grew up in Cowra in western NSW, so it’s a river I know quite well).

    And that is a great description of Elizabeth St. It starts right in the city proper running past all the old colonial buildings and Hyde Park before running into Central Station and disappearing into Surrey Hills & Redfern.

    A friend of mine used to work for National Parks before she retired. The last couple of years were very traumatic for her as she took on the dispatcher role during bushfire emergencies. Even those trained to do it, with years of experience, find it challenging. Asking a young person with no training and no support to do the job is crazy!

    • Naomi says:

      There was a section on flooding in the book, too, but the parts that stood out to me most were the hot, fire-y ones! And it’s what we hear about the most in the news over here. The flooding sounds very bad, but at least the river is still flowing.

      There are so many other places named in the book that didn’t mean a whole lot to me, but would probably be fun for someone who knows them!

      I can imagine how traumatic it would be to be involved in any way with all the emergencies. I wonder if there’s *anyone* who is suited to that type of job?

      Thanks for enhancing the story for me with your great comment, Brona!

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    If you fancy a visit to Australia but don’t like the heat, you could come to Melbourne, and from there also visit Tasmania. Those from other states tease us about our weather but although we get some extreme weather events we have a temperate climate and I live very happily here despite my hatred of hot weather.

      • Lisa Hill says:

        Yes, there is. It’s a splendid ship called the Spirit of Tasmania which plies between Geelong and Devonport, and it takes about 9 hours or so, depending on the weather. From Melbourne you take a train to Geelong, and there are morning and night sailings, and you can take your car. That’s what we did when we went some years ago, and from Devonport we drove round the coast and through the middle of the island down to Hobart and back along the famous West Country. It took a leisurely two weeks and was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. They’ve replaced the ship with a new one since then and now it’s very congenial as you can see from their website:

      • Naomi says:

        9 hours is quite a trip. Very similar to the ferry ride from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. There’s also one from Prince Edward Island to the Magdalen Islands that is 5 hours. They’re not exactly day trips, are they?

      • Lisa Hill says:

        Australia is a big country, and good planning involves minimising distances if you don’t like the actual travelling part. Best option is to take an overnight berth, which gives you your overnight accommodation, nice places to have dinner and breakfast plus a glorious sunset (and sunrise, if you’re up early enough).

  3. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for the link back to my blog, and glad you gave this one a go! And yes, it’s got a great sense of place and depicts the oppressiveness of the heat so well.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for all the great suggestions you gave! I also requested The Animals in that Country, but its still not in, so it’s a good thing I requested them both!

  4. wadholloway says:

    The theme of my week started with cli. fi., and really, over the 30 years of Gen 5 climate change has gone from future to present, and that shows in contemporary fiction
    Thanks for taking part. My own choice turned out not to be much more SFF than yours

    • Naomi says:

      So true about the climate. It did feel futuristic in that way – there was so much emphasis and projection about the extreme weather.
      Thanks for hosting the even, Bill! 🙂

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m so glad you read this! I thought it was great and hardly anyone seems to have read it, or even heard of it. The Australia setting was a bonus for me as it made the subject matter of a self-sabotaging young woman seem less familiar. I would also recommend The Performance by Claire Thomas (also Australian), which has a really interesting structure and has the same sense of menace, environmental and human.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, the setting was a plus for me, too!
      It’s always good to get more recommendations for Australian Lit – the more I have, the more likely I’ll be to find something here!

  6. annelogan17 says:

    I love Melanie Watt’s books, they are super fun. This book sounds like it would give me anxiety, I wasn’t aware that fresh water was becoming a scarcity there, but it makes sense considering how dry it is.

    Interesting fact about Melanie Watt; she is quite anxious herself, and Scaredy Squirrel is sort of a stand-in for her own thoughts, she created him to help with her own anxiety!

    • Naomi says:

      Maybe Madeleine and Melanie have more in common than just their initials! Lol
      That’s a good point about this book… it’s written well enough to trigger anxiety in the reader. Proceed with caution!

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