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Jan 24

Book Review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

What’s It About

The novel is set years into the future where global warning and rising seas has seen the destruction of cities, the takeover of Europe by China and the scarcity of fresh water.

Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father which comes with its own responsibilities.  One of which is knowledge of a hidden source of fresh water that used to supply the town but is now kept secret from the military.  But for how long…

It’s worth noting that Memory of Water was originally published in Finland in 2012.  Emmi Itaranta took on the task of translating her own novel for its English-language publication. 

Should I Read It?

Yes.  If the gorgeous writing doesn’t pull you in, the compelling story will.  Itaranta doesn’t shy away from the moral conundrum Noria faces once she becomes responsible for the spring.  Does she keep it secret – and therefore keep it out of the clutches of the military – or does she reveal her secret, on possible pain of death, to support a village that is slowly dying from a lack of purified and desalinated water?  This choice, and Noria’s eventual decision provides the novel with a real sense of danger and tension.

And did I mention that the prose is beautiful?

Representative Paragraph

Noria’s father reveals a hidden spring of fresh water…

Water rushed from inside the rock in strings and threads and strands of shimmer, in enormous sheets that shattered the surface of the pond at the bottom of the cave when they hit it. It twisted around the rocks and curled in spirals and whirls around itself, and churned and danced and unravelled again. The surface trembled under the force of the movement. A narrow stream flowed from the pond towards the shelf of stone that the doorway we had come through was on, then disappeared into the ground under it. I could see something that looked like a white stain on the rock wall above the surface of the water, and another lever in the wall further away. My father urged me on, to the edge of the pond.

‘Try it,’ he said. I dipped my fingers in the water and felt its strength. It moved against my hand like breathing, like an animal, like another person’s skin. It was cold, far colder than anything I was used to. I licked my fingers carefully, like I had been taught to do since I was very young: never drink water you haven’t tasted first. ‘It’s fresh,’ I said. Lantern light folded on his face when he smiled, and then, slowly, the smile ran dry.

Commentary

I want to make it clear from the outset that I really liked Memory of Water. The writing is beautiful and Noria Kaitio is a likeable and well-rounded character. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was allowing Itaranta’s gorgeous, delicate prose to distract me from her hazy, nebulous world building. In particular, while the scarcity of water is blamed on climate change and rising seas, it’s not entirely clear how humanity pulled itself from the darkness that was the Twilight Century (the period that bridges the technological past with this post apocalyptic present). There’s also no explanation as to how or why China took over Europe or who they’re currently fighting.

There is the view that the true science fiction novel uses science to drive the narrative and not as window dressing. Post Apocalyptic fiction often struggles with this because the focus is often on the fight for survival rather than explaining how the world ended or more importantly finding a solution through science and engineering.  Famously, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t bother to describe what led to the near destruction of humanity in his harrowing novel, The Road. As a result McCarthy’s book is less science and more survival fiction.

While Memory of Water has more science fictional flesh on the bone when compared to The Road, I’m sure there will be those who won’t class it as an SF novel. Justin Landon, in his positive review of the book for Tor.com, acknowledges this:

… There’s more story to tell in Itäranta’s world, both about the how and why. Without these things it becomes less a science fiction than a literary character study with some odd parameters. Could this have been the story of a girl in desert culture, with no hints at our own imagined future? Most assuredly. Whether that detracts from the novel is a question for each reader to answer. For me, Noria’s journey was satisfying and poignant. Emmi Itäranta’s novel recalls a memory of what’s important, not only to survive, but to actually live.

Like Landon, I was more than satisfied with the journey. But more than that, I don’t think Itaranta has been skimpy with her world building due to a lack of care or a different set of priorities. Rather, holding back on explanations – how did China takeover Europe? What happened during the Twilight Century? – are a feature of the novel, not a bug.

As the book is written in first person, we only know what Noria knows. Living in a secluded village coupled with a military that’s not keen on giving away secrets means that information about the past is hard to find. And it’s not like Noria isn’t interested. Her father’s decision to train her as a tea-master and show Noria the secret of the spring means that she’s more aware of the world around her, and with that awareness comes curiosity and an unwillingness to accept the status quo.

What’s brilliant, though, is how Itaranta tantalises Noria (and the reader) with the truth, with the possibility of learning more, and then pulls it away. For example, Noria’s mother is an academic and when the pressure increases at home – the military encroaching on the property looking for a source of fresh water – she decides to take a job in a University.  Noria is offered the option to go with her mother or stay with her father and continue her tea-master studies.  In the end she forgoes the possibility of knowledge to maintain the traditions set by her father and those that came before him.  It’s a selfless act.

This selflessness is a recurring theme in the novel.  When Noria and Sanja discover a CD in the plastic grave detailing a secret, unsanctioned expedition into the Lost Lands to look for fresh water, both of them are overwhelmed with the need to know more.  When the opportunity arises, Noria is prepared to leave her village, leave her responsibilities as the tea-master and protector of the spring and embark on a journey of discovery.  And traditionally, we’d expect a character in this type of novel to venture forth, to spend multiple books discovering the secrets of the Twilight Century.  However, Noria’s earlier decision to share water with the rest of the village rather than watch them suffer means that ultimately her chance to explore, to add more flesh to the bone, is taken away from her.

This novel is not an example of where the author has scribbled the world building on the back of an envelope.  There’s enough evidence within Memory of Water to indicate that Itaranta has a clear idea of what brought about this particular apocalypse.  But by holding back these details from Noria and the reader, Itaranta provides us with a book that’s less about the ongoing scarcity of water or the wars that China is fighting and more about Noria’s selfless attempts to keep her community and traditions alive.  In the end then, the beautiful prose and the fantastic character work is not a distraction but enhances the power of this fantastic science fiction novel.

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