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.