Most dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels are very focused on how it happened or on how we are going to change things for the better, and ideally, both. While I can understand why an author would do that – placing protagonists at the centre of the action so that the reader can learn about the situation and how it came into being, and then provide some restorative closure – it always feels rather false to me, not least because this is not how the world works, at least, not on such a grand scale. Maybe I’m just growing old but I am becoming more and more resistant to that ‘man the barricades and we can fix this’ style of fiction, when it is at such variance to what I see in the world around me. Which is not to say that the concept is bad per se, but it is remarkably easy to do badly, and therein lies the offence. If you are going to build a world you need to do it so well it either fades into the background while you get on with the real story, or else if you make it the focus of the story, you make it sufficiently convincing I don’t feel obliged to make lists of why things can’t possibly work. I can think of too many novels I’ve read lately (Edan Lepucki’s California and Naomi Foyle’s Astra being but two) where this does not happen. However, it turns out that there is at least one more way to handle this, and this is the route that Emmi Itäranta has chosen with Memory of Water.
Noria Kaitio lives in what she calls the ‘present-world’, somewhere in Scandinavia. Climate change has led, as anticipated, to rising sea levels and the inundation of coastal areas. In the wake of this came ‘water wars’, during which sources of fresh water were placed under the control of the military, where they have remained since. Water is rationed, but for some there is never quite enough and some have resorted to constructing illegal pipelines to siphon off water from the controlled sources. ‘Water crime’, with its obviously Orwellian overtones, is punishable by execution, after a period of dehydration and starvation.
And something else has happened along the way – some technical knowledge has been lost, and although they still exist, the electronic goods we take for granted are few, and difficult to get hold of. As indeed is everything else. There is a sense that the military pretty much run everything but it’s not really clear what is going on. Why is it not clear? Because this story is being told from the periphery rather than from the centre; and this is one of the things that makes it so successful. We never see the world as a whole. We see it through Noria’s eyes. She’s seventeen, it’s all she’s ever known, and even though her parents are educated people, who own many books, she takes most things at face value, as do most people. Her life is in the ‘present-world’ and her only real engagement with the ‘past-world’ comes through her friend Sanja’s hobby of combing the rubbish dumps for bits of old technology, which she tries to bring back to life. And indeed, the dumps provide a useful metaphor for the lives the two girls live, a mess of bits and pieces that don’t quite belong together and don’t quite make sense, but it’s all they’ve got.
One of the strongest parts of the novel is the portrayal of the friendship between the two girls, very different in character and circumstances, but tied closely to one another in a myriad ways. Itäranta hints delicately that Noria is in love with Sanja, but we have no clue as to the nature of Sanja’s love for Noria, and that feels right. We might wonder what the future holds for them in a world that seems to be deeply conservative but, within the frame of the novel itself, that is a question that cannot be answered, and indeed almost needs not to be answered. It is just part of who and what they are.
Noria’s detachment from the outside world is emphasised by her father’s craft: he is a tea master, and she is in turn apprenticed to him. This is further evidence, though unremarked on, of past upheavals. It’s clear from background references that China has been, may still be, in the ascendant, and the ceremonies of tea drinking have spread across what was once Europe. One might reasonably wonder how it is that a ritual that depends so much on water persists at a time when water is a precious commodity – and the answer is precisely that, because it is a precious commodity. Wealth and privilege permit one to use water in ways that poor people can’t. The only real surprise is that Noria’s father hasn’t moved to the city, where he might expect to make a less precarious living.
Or perhaps not, given that Noria’s father will not compromise where his craft is concerned. It is this refusal, this exercise of another kind of privilege, that will eventually lead Noria into trouble, once her father shows her the spring hidden deep in the fells, the water from which he uses for his tea ceremonies, a secret handed from master to master. It’s only much later, after her father’s death, once water has been rationed further, and when she sees the villagers suffering, that Noria finally begins to question the actions of her father and his predecessors, that the enormity of her promise to her father, to keep the spring a secret, comes home to her. Not least because it’s clear too that the water police realise that they are hiding a water source, even if they can’t yet find it.
While Noria struggles with the moral implications of this concealment, she and Sanja have also stumbled on a mystery, contained on a series of old tapes they found in the dump, and which they’ve managed to listen to. These suggest that a scientific expedition of some sort went into the Lost Lands illegally and made an important discovery. Later, finding more evidence of the expedition’s presence at the hidden spring, Noria realises that they had contact with the tea master of the time. She finally discovers the truth in one of her predecessor’s journals, which draws the reader into a whole new consideration of the business of making records. Her father’s journals had been confiscated when the tea house was searched, but were returned, obviously unread. The threat to knowledge is, if you like, more powerful than actually doing anything with that knowledge.
This tension between knowing and not knowing permeates the entire novel. Is it better to know, or not to? And if you do, what should you do with that knowledge? How do you make the right choices when you have no one to guide you? Or worse, when your guide is himself compromised? And the question that is never quite articulated is, just how much has Noria’s father compromised himself in order to preserve his art? And is his art, as a result, itself now compromised. When Noria completes her apprenticeship and is tested by another master, he reluctantly accepts her as such, criticising her for changing certain elements of the ritual as she goes, for not making the choices he thinks are appropriate. Noria defends her choices as sensible accommodations of the situation in which she finds herself but there is an underlying implication that the ritual is in danger of becoming atrophied because its practitioners in the city are seduced by money. And yet, is Noria’s father any better for remaining in the country, seduced by the existence of that hidden spring, whose water will make his tea better?
In the end, Noria makes the choice which must inevitably lead to her death – shut away in her house with little food and water, and that supplied by the water police, who offer her dried food, food that needs soaking, and so on. It is at this point that Noria records everything she knows about the lost expedition and its discovery that fresh potable water is available in the Lost Lands, a thing the military knows and seeks to suppress, and something that Noria had hoped to reveal
And even here, the story does not falter or collapse, because while Noria is dying, Sanja was able to escape before the military arrived; later she will find her way to Noria’s mother, Lian, who moved to the city once she realised what was likely to happen. Sanja will bring their discovery to Lian, but of course we don’t know what she will do. And I really hope we don’t find out. Because this book is so wonderfully self-contained it would be a pity to break the spell that Itäranta has created and extend the story into an actual concrete sequel. Instead, it stays tantalisingly in the mind as we consider the possibilities.
So, instead, let me recommend Memory of Water to you as a necessary corrective to all those dystopian novels with their restorative endings. Exquisitely written, exquisitely observed, it lingers in my memory long after the others have all blurred into one.