Let me take a quick moment to thank my long-distance book club for this read right quick. As our theme for this month’s book club, we chose something related to endangered species/Ocean Month/general environmental things. It’s a broad, vague category. Haha. But actually one of the prompts for The Reading Women Challenge 2020 is a book About the Environment (prompt #3). The group was awesome in accommodating that into our book suggestions – looking specifically for books that fit that theme that were written by women. And I have to say I had both never heard of this book before it was recommended and would never have gone looking for it or picked it up without both this group of ladies and/or this challenge. I’m grateful to both for the push.
“Water is the most versatile of all elements. It isn’t afraid to burn in fire or fade into the sky, it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall or drown into the dark shroud of earth. It exists beyond all beginnings and ends.”
In the far North of what used to be the Scandinavian peninsula, but is now ruled by powers out of China, lives 17-year-old Noria Kaitio. Global warming and wars over water have changed the political and environmental geography of her world away from anything that is recognizable today. And in this dystopian/post-apocalyptic setting, Noria is learning the secrets, traditions and responsibilities of a tea master (including the care and maintenance of a secret fresh water spring), from her father. As water becomes ever scarcer, and more and more poor village-members are punished excessively for “water crimes,” Noria and her friend Sonja discover some information that changes what they think they know (what they were told) about the water crisis. But the danger in their knowledge of the tea masters’ secret spring and the friends’ plans to search for further information on other water sources compromises their safety too much…and they both face difficult decisions and tragedy.
Whereas many post-apocalyptic novels, even other gorgeously lyrical ones like Station Eleven, start with a bit of a bang or major drama, we enter this dystopian (frighteningly realistic) future in a much quieter slide. When we meet Noria, the present-day life that we know is already generations into the past, and the characters have all settled into the new reality of the inevitability of water restrictions and rations and government/military control of the essential resource. The plot unfolds with deliberate pacing, every moment and observation meaningful in a softly fulfilling way, in the same manner that the steps of the tea ceremony Noria is learning are each meditative and significant. And though there is a clear build, a sharp twist and a deep blow to the reader, as we get to the climax of the story, it is delivered in such a thoughtful way that the poignancy comes through without the need for a clash of epic proportions or of dramatic language. However, I do have to note that the epilogue did give me an unexpected surge of emotion – it was a completely unexpected pivot (Noria’s voice and concerns had completely pulled me in with their tangibility and authenticity that I had no room in my head for an alternative option) and I loved it. It was sudden, but comfortably so (I don’t know how else to describe it) and it fit the rest of the novel perfectly. I also was a really big fan of the feeling it left me with – the reality of the challenges left to face, with no ready or true solution – and yet without the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that type of ending seems like it would cause. It’s very delicately successful.
I already have sort of alluded to this, but I want to go ahead and say it clearly, just to be sure the message comes across: the writing was lovely. It was smooth and expressive, full of wonderful (if slightly repetitive) imagery and even better comparative and discerning observations about the state of water, its ubiquitous and pervasive presence in our lives, and, therefore, the pivotal role it plays in our existence and the disaster we’ll face when it is no longer so readily available.
And the last thing I want to mention is the lens through which the story is told. Although Noria holds a position of privilege within her small town (village, really), she is still an incredibly minor and everyday sort of heroine, in the face of what the world is experiencing. She’s not in a city, not well-known, not a traditional “savior,” not a “chosen one” or any other dystopian MC trope. And yet, despite that, or perhaps because of it, her story is still incredibly compelling. It is so easy to imagine oneself in her shoes, trying to survive the best one can in the tragic circumstances in which one finds oneself, with only minimal access to a greater knowledge or resources that might help one succeed at that survival. Along with that, Noria’s story-arc, the way her narration ends in a state of not-knowing anything for sure, but making the best (in this case, defined as most aligned with her moral compass) decisions she could, is frighteningly recognizable. It makes the epilogue that much more impactful and wrenching, and yet is still satisfying on many levels because of the realistic way that it plays out. This “unimportant,” normal person, perspective makes this novel feel urgent and powerful in a very unique way.
All in all, I really enjoyed this novel. Although it was a very slow-paced story, I liked how that fit “right” with the writing style and aura of the book. I am incredibly impressed with the author’s bilingual writing capability (I can barely write that beautifully in my first language) and loved the cautionary message about the future we might face if we aren’t careful with and respectful of our natural resources. This was a great book choice, in my opinion, for a book challenge prompt honoring our natural environment and one I would definitely recommend to other post-apocalyptic slow-burn (or slow-erosion…LOL water puns) book lovers.
Since I mentioned the language a couple times, enjoy these passages that particularly stood out to me:
“Silence is not empty or immaterial, and it is not needed to chain tame things. If often guards powers strong enough to shatter everything.”
“In those days a silence wavered between my parents, dense with stirring, well-hidden fear and nameless, unspoken things. It was like a calm surface of water, extreme and unnatural: a single word dropped on it, a single shifting stone at the bottom would change it, create a circle and yet another circle, until the reflection was warped, unrecognizable with the force of the movement.”
“Dust will gather around the legs of the shelves and spiders will weave their webs in the corners, and mute book pages will grow yellow between the covers. The glass of the windows slips downwards like slow rain, even if we don’t see it, and the landscape outside is different every day: the light falls from another angle, the wind tugs at the threes slower or faster, the greenness of the leaves draws away and one ant more or less walks on the trunk. Even if we don’t see it right away, it is all happening; and if we look away long enough, we will no longer recognize the room and the landscape, when we eventually look at them again.”
“We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. They go together always, in the world and in us, and the time will come when our water runs dry.”
“There is no power that lasts, Noria. Even mountains will eventually be worn down by wind and rain.”
“Secrets gnaw at the bonds between people. Sometimes we believe they can also build them: if we let another person into the silent space a secret has made within us, we are no longer alone there.”
“The distance from dreams to words is long, and so is the way from words to deeds.”
“History has no beginning and no end, there are just events that people give the shape of stories in order to understand them better…And in order to tell a story one must chose what not to tell.”
“People will hold on to what they’re used to, for as long as they can. It’s the only way to survive.”
“When life is chained within narrow limits, the slightest illusion of freedom is valuable.”
“And yet I was holding it in my hands: not the whole truth, because the whole truth never survives, but something that was not entirely lost.”