Books

Madeleine Watts
The Inland Sea

The unnamed narrator of Madeleine Watts’ debut novel is an emergency dispatch phone operator. She’s spending her last year in Sydney making bad decisions: drinking too much, sleeping with the wrong men, wanting to escape overseas but seduced by the hourly rate of shift work and bearing witness to a national climate emergency. Her life is a freight train hurtling towards panic stations.

With vignette-like chapters that alternate between euphoria, paranoia and misery, The Inland Sea is a study of a housing-insecure, roach-infested city and a woman who isn’t convinced that consequences exist, both constantly testing their limits. Watts’ retelling of modern-day Sydney is vividly oppressive and pulses with a quiet sneering dread. There are empty streets at night in this crowded city, orange mould growing on bathtubs, bats conspiring in the trees, and rivers too cold and muddy to swim in. The summer’s soundtrack is the calm repetition of “Emergency police, fire or ambulance? What state and town is the emergency in?” at the call centre. Any other dialogue reveals a tendency for people to remain silent or misunderstand each other rather than admit weakness.

The Inland Sea, named after a mythical island that 19th-century explorers believed to be somewhere in central Australia, is a stylish cli-fi novel, exploring what it means to believe in something; a tale of surviving moral imperfections and damage done throughout history. For a novel that is haunted by the need to acquire “some much needed distance”, however, the passages describing the explorer John Oxley’s legacy – he is the protagonist’s ancestor – seem sparse and underdeveloped compared with the urgency of present-day crises faced by the young narrator.

Towards the end, The Inland Sea declares, “THE FUTURE IS COMING AND IT DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.” Watts is not interested in going easy on us. She implores us to look, listen and start admitting what’s out there: emergencies that will find us, even if we try our hardest to escape them. This book will resonate with readers who believe in best-case scenarios over reverse-engineering centuries of harm. Delia Falconer had her Sydney; Don Watson, his memory of The Bush; here, Madeleine Watts claims a vision for the modern-day Inland Sea: a place where the blinkers between reality and the history books, at least temporarily, disappear.

Nathania Gilson

Pushkin, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Madeleine Watts, The Inland Sea".

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Reviewer: Nathania Gilson

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