First came global heating, when people suffered in a world consumed by fire. Then, in a dramatic climatic reversal, rain began to fall from a saturated atmosphere: downpours that ceased for just long enough each day to reveal a pale disc of sun. Animals drowned and streams became rivers that ran in endless spate. In a matter of years, modern civilisation was inundated, reduced to a scattered, shantytown version of itself.
This is the drenched, mouldering world that Roanna McClelland imagines in her debut novel, a winner of the Arts South Australia unpublished manuscript award. And while her vision is futuristic, a sci-fi “weirding” of our climate anxieties, the author’s real-world background in environmental policy and law tugs at the narrative’s hem. Hers is a thought experiment in how one grows up and lives on, after the world has ended.
The story opens some years after the rains began, and it is held in the tight, limited focus of an unnamed young girl who shares a sodden hut with an old woman known only as Gammy. There is something vibrant, even feral, about the girl from the get-go. Her exact age is lost, but she is entering her teens with the raw innocence of one who is growing up outside any set of societal norms.
She is, moreover, a child who seems unusually skilful in navigating this flooded world. A strong and fearless swimmer, utterly indifferent to the endless rain on her skin, who spends her days hunting fish and collecting edible reeds and shellfish in and around the river, a vast and ever-expanding body of water whose banks are daily eaten away. But there is also something different about her. She is obliged to wear a green cape with a bell that rings as she goes, warning the few other villagers of her proximity. They fear and shun her, even as she reluctantly provides food that they seem incapable of procuring for themselves.
The girl’s only real human contact is with Gammy. Increasingly frail and racked by a hacking cough, the old woman regularly admonishes her charge for recklessness and sass, and – occasionally, reluctantly – tells stories about earlier times: back when there were five villages, interconnected by kinship or trade; and before even then, when the world was whole and the sky was mainly blue.
The girl is increasingly unsettled. She sneers at the villagers who fear her but is also drawn to them, spying on their sad efforts at survival from a discreet distance. One villager in particular – a leader of sorts, perhaps new to the place – bothers her. Of all of these cowed, desperate creatures, he stands taller. He is perhaps even aware of her lurking presence.
Gammy has raised the girl to be wary of the villagers. She says they might yet overcome their fear and need of her help and kill her. Gradually, we assemble a picture of why they might wish to do so. The girl has tough, scaly feet, pointy teeth, oily skin that repels rain. She is almost amphibious – a “water baby”, says Gammy, recalling Charles Kingsley’s Victorian-era fantasy. Readers learn that others of her kind were born, inspiring revulsion in the remnant human population, but that now each community has only a single person like her, kept at a safe remove but tolerated to perform that provisioning role.
When Gammy’s voice breaks in for the first time, halfway through the novel’s course, a wave of retrospective pain washes over the narrative. Her love for the girl, her fears for the future in a world without one, and her own sense of waning strength, undercut the rude insouciance with which the girl has approached life so far. From this point, it seems, darker currents will draw the story on.
The main character here, aside from the girl and Gammy, is the world McClelland has built to contain them: a monotonous grey veil descending on a landscape of mud and rotting trees. For those who knew the planet as it was before, it is a dying place. Their purchase on life has become an unthinking rictus. But for the girl, the river is alive with life and adventure. She respects the strength of old “Lady River” and tests her own against it. She has, we sense, grown indigenous to this place and adept in its new conditions. And like young people at all times, she has a healthy contempt for her elders:
“You and the villagers wallow in the past, Gammy. You wallow in stories like the sticky mud. Your history leaches strength from your soft bones and sucks at your weak ankles and drags at your cloaks. I don’t want to wallow with you lot. I want to fly through the wet.”
The girl reminds us that those born on the other side of calamity have a strength that arises from unknowing. There is something thrilling about her fearlessness and hunger for experience, even if it is shadowed by the sorts of experiences that Gammy, in her bitter wisdom, would protect the girl from.
The Comforting Weight of Water is not a perfect debut. It lingers too relentlessly on the wet world and takes its time to find proper narrative footing. But, like the girl herself, McClelland’s novel relishes its other strengths too much for readers not to embrace its concerns. Yes, we think, this is what living after an apocalypse should look like. In a place where water has sluiced away the old world entirely, space must be made for those whose ignorance is perfect. The new world begins with such as them.
Wakefield Press, 284pp, $32.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "The Comforting Weight of Water".
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